When Mindy Shemtov worked with adults in rehab, she noticed it was often a family death during childhood that triggered later drug or alcohol addiction.
"I wanted a way to intercede while they were still children," she said.
In 2001 she and Patricia Smith started The Alcove Center for Grieving Children and Families in Northfield, providing free group bereavement therapy for children ages 3 to 18 to help them understand and cope with the death of a loved one.
They started with six children. Now they see more than 600 per year and do outreach to children in high-risk areas and schools. When four Mainland Regional High School students were killed in a car crash in 2011, the center provided counseling to students there. They currently offer counseling at 22 schools in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
"Children often feel isolated and alone after a death," Shemtov said. "The other students don't know how to act around them. Here they are with other children who understand."
The center has four age-appropriate meeting rooms. The room for the 3- to 6-year-olds has a colorful mural, games and stuffed animals. High school students get comfortable couches. A large community room gives the parents a place to meet and talk.
Groups meet for 1 1/2 hours every other week. All are run by volunteers who get 30 hours of training.
Barbara Mason, of Absecon trained last summer and started working with a group in September. She said she joined because there had been a death in her family and no support for children at that time.
"It's been better than I even expected," said Mason, who works with middle-school students. "It's not all tears and sadness. I am amazed at how they can cope and articulate their grief."
Ginger LeRoy, of Ventnor, is in her third year as a volunteer group facilitator and likes that she is making a difference in young lives.
"A death is not something a child can talk about in the school lunchroom," she said. "Here they can talk about it."
Artwork by the students decorates the center, located behind the Sun Bank Building on Tilton Road. The group relies on donations, grants and fundraising to cover its costs. The Alcove recently got $5,000 from BJ's Wholesale Club. The group's next big fundraiser is the "Alcove A Go Go" at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City.
A thrift shop next to the center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. It is also staffed by volunteers, including Lorraine Hurd of Absecon, who has been coming every Thursday since the shop opened.
"It's a nice place to work. There are a lot of nice people," said Hurd.
Shemtov estimates about 100 people volunteer at the Alcove in some way, but the group can always use more. A training session is being scheduled for volunteers interested in working with the children. A few adult volunteers had been in bereavement groups as children. Volunteers are asked to commit for one year.
The center is also offering fee-based therapy for adults. The groups for children remain free.
For more information, contact The Alcove Center for Grieving Children and Families, 376 Tilton Road, Northfield. Call 609-484-1133 or visit thealcove.org
Contact Diane D'Amico:
Alcove A Go Go
From 6:30 to 9:30 p.m Friday at Boogie Nights at Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City. Cost is $75, or four for $240 and 10 for $500. Prizes for best disco attire, plus an auction, raffle, hors' d'oeurves and complimentary wine. 609-484-1133.