Thursday, July 25, 1996
Cincinnati reaches out to survivors

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You'd have to be made of stone not to be touched by the people of TWA Flight 800. People from Warson Woods, Mo., and Hoboken and Memphis and Prato, Italy. An architect, an artist, a French hockey player, a dancer. Grandparents, teen-agers, small children.

Then there were the 16 kids from tiny Montoursville, Pa., students on a French club trip. Scholars and acolytes and athletes and musicians and cheerleaders, they were, as one neighbor put it, ''the cream of the crop.''

The whole town, it appears, worked to send these kids and their five chaperones to Paris, two years of peanut and candy sales and car washes.

A whole town in mourning

''When you live in a town of 5,000, everybody knows everybody,'' said a woman who coaches the swim team. Horrible anguish. An entire community in mourning, especially its children.

So someone called Rachel Burrell.

That phone call was a very good break for a town that hasn't had one for a while. Floods swirled through Montoursville earlier this year. A 6-year-old was killed by a school bus. Two high school students died - one accident, the other a suicide.

A woman who runs the funeral home had heard about Fernside Center for Grieving Children here. Its founder and director is uniquely qualified to help this particular town at this particular time. Rachel Burrell's husband, Paul, is a retired University of Cincinnati French professor. The little town with its French name and the children's French destination needed that connection.

A prayer, in English and French, was dispatched immediately and will be used in memorial services. ''This was important to them,'' Mrs. Burrell says. ''We told them to ask the children for ideas. Their world is out of control. You want to give them something they can handle. And they need to be included. A grieving kid feels so isolated.''

And that is the essence of Fernside.

Mrs. Burrell says firmly that ''we're not doing therapy here, just peer support.'' Or, as one 11-year-old told her, ''I'm with my own people here.''

Fernside is located on the grounds of Zion United Church of Christ in Norwood. Six staffers and 125 trained volunteers serve children ages 4 to 18. There are some special groups - survivors of homicide or suicide, for instance - but generally kids are gathered by age into groups of 10 or 12 with three adult facilitators per group.

Pizza first. Then they ''share'' for an hour or so. Afterward, the staff meets to sort out what they've just heard. A big chunk of time, a big commitment from volunteers. There's a library and a rumpus room, equipped with a punching bag ''helpful for anger.'' Lots of color, beanbag chairs, art supplies.

The care package for Montoursville included workbooks for children and guidebooks for their teachers, developed over 10 years of listening to children coping with death. When Rachel and Paul Burrell's son, David, was killed in a bicycle accident in 1982, ''we couldn't find much to read.'' They were looking for help for their three surviving children.

From that came Fernside. They've worked with more than 3,000 children around here and provided aides and materials to countless others. After the Gulf War, the Israeli Minister of Defense asked for - and got - help.

Everything is free of charge. The Junior League gave seed money, and some funding comes from foundations. Volunteers raise the rest.

Rachel Burrell says they get help from ''certain angels.'' Well, I've never seen an angel in person, but I bet I know what one looks like. I'll bet she'd be thin, almost wispy. She'd have a lovely narrow face, with thick glasses that magnify her eyes, where her own grief is clearly written. She'd wear a red paisley man's tie, knotted at the neck of an oversized white cotton shirt, tucked into a long red and beige checked skirt. Tennis shoes, no socks.

This splendid, shy woman nonetheless had the strength to build a rather wonderful agency and warm refuge.

She offers grieving children a simple truth.

They are not alone.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.