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In Wilmington, Compassionate Friends share some smiles, tears for those in need in memory of lost loved ones

Othell Heaney hands 3-year-old Juliette a candy cane at Catholic Charities during Compassionate Friends large gift giveaway for families that are grieving the loss of children of all ages. Dialog photo/Don Blake

Sometimes things happen for a reason and they’re especially appealing when they happen in a certain season.

Kim Ellis is program manager of Basic Needs Assistance for the Diocese of Wilmington Catholic Charities. She got a phone call last month from Betty Valentine, the lead volunteer for the Brandywine Hundred Chapter of Compassionate Friends, a group that supports families after a child dies.

It was around the time of the group’s worldwide candle lighting on the second Sunday in December that aims to unite family and friends around the globe in lighting candles for one hour to honor the memories of the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and grandchildren who died too young. As candles were lighted Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. local time in each place, hundreds of thousands of people commemorate and honor the memory of all children lost to the families, no matter their age. It starts in Australia and creates a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone.

The group in Wilmington held its event at Silverside Church, where it meets twice a month during the year. All the people involved have lost children.

“We ask people to bring a gift they would have bought for their children,” Valentine said. “We donate them and every gift we donate represents a child lost too soon. We’re giving purpose to the lives that are lost.”

Catholic Charities in collaboration with Compassionate Friends gave gifts to families in need. Dialog photo/Don Blake

Valentine, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth in Wilmington, lost her daughter, Kara Lynn MacIver, who died in 2011 at the age of 35 after a sudden illness. She has been involved with the group since and says they try each year to find a worthwhile cause to benefit from the donations. She says they have given to orphanages, firefighters groups and others.

It was during the call with Ellis that the Catholic Charities basic needs assistance program came into focus.

A quick visit to the Catholic Charities office while gifts were being distributed Dec. 21 in Wilmington was evidence enough that a worthy cause had been selected. A stream of program clients came and went at the office, most leaving with beaming smiles, some with tears of joy in their eyes, all carrying gifts donated to those who otherwise wouldn’t have had much on Christmas.

“I thought it was a great pairing,” Ellis said of the match of basic needs clients and Compassionate Friends. “These are people who have lost children over a long age span, and we have clients of all ages.”

Othell Heaney is one of the founding members of the group in Wilmington, helping to keep Compassionate Friends going since 1987. She lost two sons to tragedy, one in 1984 and another in 1987.

“We’re here to help people who don’t know there is a group to support those who have lost children,” she said.

Heaney was sitting nearby as clients were coming and going.

“I’ve seen a lot of tears and a lot of smiles,” she said.

Ellis and the staff at Catholic Charities help people with important needs such as rental assistance, utility and food assistance and general case management for people who don’t have resources.

She said help from Compassionate Friends fills a gap that otherwise would remain empty.

“These are people who have lost jobs, are not able to provide and are not able to provide Christmas for their families,” Ellis said as clients continued to come in and out of Catholic Charities offices. “People are excited. There is a lot of gratitude. Clients are very appreciative.

“People deal with depression around the holidays, especially with financial constraints.”

She said the hurt of clients is being eased by people who have suffered hurt of their own.

“They’re taking their losses and turning it into something positive for others,” Ellis said.

“It was a match made in heaven.”