Death is not generally a kosher topic at dinner. Colleen Shannon ’04, however, doesn’t think it should be taboo.
“I’m the person that brings it up at the table,” she says.
Every day, Colleen deals with death as the associate program director at the Children’s Room, an Arlington-based nonprofit that supports children and adolescents between the ages of 3-18 who have experienced the loss of a parent or sibling. She also works to educate teachers, counselors and other professionals on how to support grieving children and families, and to advocate on behalf of families who are navigating often stigmatized deaths such as homicide, suicide and drug overdoses.
For all of her work, the 35-year-old Lesley alum recently received the Emerging Leadership Award by the National Association of Social Workers.
“I felt very humbled,” Colleen says. “There are so many people out there doing good work. I felt very privileged to be the person who was selected.”
Colleen knows better than most the importance of giving children and their families an outlet to process grief. Her sister died when she was 10. At the time, there were services for people dealing with a sick loved one, but “after the person died, the family was kind of left with nothing,” Colleen recalled.
Shaped by these experiences, she always knew she wanted to work in a “helping profession.”
As someone who found art beneficial in her own healing, she majored in art therapy as an undergraduate at Lesley. While completing her degree she began to intern at the Children’s Room and was hired after graduation.
Colleen pursued a master’s degree in social work at Salem State University while taking on more responsibility at the Children’s Room.
“I was fortunate at Lesley. I had a great art therapy professor and a great research professor of mine who was also a social worker,” Colleen says, recalling associate professors Michaela Kirby and Janel Lucas. Of Lucas, she says, “I remember talking to her and finding that was what I wanted to do.”
A Room of One’s Own
Colleen has honed her skills at the Children’s Room over the course of 13 years. The nonprofit combines art therapy and peer support to help children and their families process the death of a family member. Situated in a Victorian house near Massachusetts Avenue, the facility is a center of calm and comfort for clients.
Each room is tailored to the children who will gather there, down to the size of the pillows arranged in circles on every floor.
In those rooms, kids work on art projects, talk about their lives and struggles and provide emotional support. The youngest group is for ages 3 to 5, and Colleen says even these small children have a unique openness that helps them process their loss.
“I have seen very young children be able to offer support as well as receive it,” says Colleen.
She recalls one instance of a girl’s first visit to the Children’s Room. When she was unwilling to go into the peer session, the other children decided to write her a note, which they brought to her, along with the materials for the activity they’d been working on.
“I don’t think we give kids or adolescents enough credit sometimes,” Colleen reflects.
Reaching and Serving More Children
Seeing how effective the peer group model was at the Children’s Room, she wanted to expand it to those who were unable to visit the Arlington location. According to Colleen, one in seven students has experienced a significant death loss, so almost every school has enough students to form a supportive peer group.
In 2010, she piloted the first program at a high school in the Boston area. The Children’s Room is now at five schools as well as Boys & Girls Clubs in Chelsea, Dorchester and Roxbury.
The initiative brought the Children’s Room to a more diverse population with different perspectives.
“As a clinician, I need to be open to all of that,” she says. “We’re constantly challenging ourselves to shift our services to meet the needs of the people we’re serving.”
In expanding the scope of the Children’s Room, Colleen has broadened her focus, working with international nonprofits that focus on youth and families who have lost family due to terrorism, sectarian violence and other traumas.
Locally, she tries to normalize conversations about death and grief through Children’s Grief Awareness Day (the Thursday before Thanksgiving) and community events.
Colleen admits that the work can be heavy and hard to leave at the office. It can make you either scared of everything or help you live in the moment. She has chosen the latter.
“I’ve seen people come in struggling, barely making it through the day, and seen them transform themselves. I’ve been humbled to see that happen,” she says. “It’s definitely impacted how I view my relationships, where I devote my time.”