When Erin Musto lost her 5-year-old daughter, Madeline, just five days after the little girl was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor, she wasn’t sure how to go on with her life.
“You don’t really know what to do, because, thankfully, it’s not normal to lose your child. We get to be in some weird club,” said the Rotterdam resident, who is raising two other daughters, Amelia, 4 and Lucy, 3.
Madeline died Feb. 8, and two or three months later, Musto and her two other girls sought help in dealing with their grief at Haven of Schenectady.
“I’m so glad we got directed to them. It has been very helpful for me just to have somebody to talk to and listen to me and tell me partly that I’m not crazy,” Musto said, noting that her girls are always eager to attend sessions there, too.
Formerly known as Haven Grief Counseling Center, the organization has provided bereavement support to people throughout the Capital Region since the late 1970s.
In November, in response to budgetary issues, Haven dismissed most of its staff and reverted to a volunteer-driven service model that hadn’t been used in about two decades.
Since mid-March, nine trained volunteers, called companioning staff, who receive a small stipend for their efforts, have been offering support services to clients. In the past, those duties were performed by paid staff members.
The transition has gone well, said Executive Director Maryann Malecki, who noted that since the change, Haven has serviced approximately 40 different clients and conducted more than 110 support sessions. Office hours have also been expanded to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m to 2 p.m. on Friday.
Suffering a loss
Bereavement services are provided to anyone who has experienced a loss, including, but not limited to, the death of a loved one.
“It can be anything that causes you to lose your self image, your identity,” said Malecki. Such occurrences could include a divorce or a job loss.
Haven’s office is staffed by Malecki, office manager Terry Riley and companioning staff member Kate Sullivan, who works as a receptionist and also sees clients.
The companioning staff members who see clients aren’t counselors, Malecki pointed out.
“Their role is offering support services to our clients. … They listen to people’s stories and many times what people need to know is they’re not going crazy. What they’re experiencing is indeed not just typical, but normal, and that there’s a wide range of ‘normal.’ ”
Musto, who was identified to The Daily Gazette as a Haven client with her permission, tries to visit Haven with her girls at least once a week. She has found her sessions there to be very comforting.
“They’re not like doctors that have never gone through it, telling you about how you’re going to feel and what’s normal. They’re real people that have gone through and are still going through [grief],” she said.
Companion staff members haven’t all lost a close family member, but all have experienced some sort of loss, Malecki noted. “Some of them have lost spouses. Some have had grandchildren who have been miscarried. Some have lost parents, siblings. Everyone’s been touched by some sort of loss, including divorce, including the loss of a job.”
Services at Haven are provided on a sliding-fee scale. Most clients pay between $15 and $30 for a 45-minute session, Malecki estimated.
Haven has started a sponsorship program that allows donors to sponsor needy clients’ visits. Through the program, clients can apply to receive up to eight pro bono support sessions.
Union St. office
Although there had been talk of offering support services at off-site locations as part of Haven’s reorganization, management decided to stick with primarily seeing clients at the organization’s office.
“This allows them to be in a place that’s rather tranquil, a place with no distractions,” Malecki said.
Haven’s Union Street location was acquired about 20 years ago as a bequest from June Golub Schechter. The house was formerly the ophthalmology office of her husband, Jay. The building’s grounds are in the process of getting a face-lift. A new sign is in the works and the signposts have been repainted. Landscaping improvements are also being planned.
“We want to make the building as accessible and as friendly and as hospitable to clients as we possibly can,” Malecki said.
Staff and volunteers are also working to make the organization itself more accessible by spreading the word about it through creative means, said Jim Salengo, a previous Haven client who is now secretary for its board of directors.
On Oct. 19, Haven will hold an art exhibit and a Madison Handbags event in conjunction with Art Night Schenectady. Also planned is a Dec. 5 luncheon and fashion show at Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia.
“It’s kind of a fun time to see the changes and the enthusiasm with Maryann and Terry, everything from not only the operating model, … everything from painting, to doing mixers in the community and redoing the sign. The enthusiasm is kind of permeating the place,” Salengo said.