Nonprofit Common Ground Helps Children Work Through Grief in Kitchen
MAKING MEALS TO REMEMBER
When Patrick and Dayana Holland discuss their father John’s favorite foods, there is a long list: shrimp, omelets, chicken wings, mashed potatoes, salami and cake, to name a few. They also talk about his larger-than- life personality, his big voice and his raucous sense of humor, as well as his fondness for cooking and sharing a good meal with the people he loved.
But the family’s life changed in February 2013 when John died unexpectedly in his sleep, a tragedy that left his wife, Susan, and the couple’s four children reeling. While the family had a large support network that helped them get through the days and weeks that passed, Susan searched for a way to help her heartbroken children, Griffin, now 19; Jack, 17; Patrick, 16; and Dayana, 9, deal with the deep sadness they felt after losing their father.
A few months after John’s death, Griffin’s high school guidance counselor told Susan about the Common Ground Grief Center, a Manasquan-based nonprofit organization devoted to helping grieving children and teens and their families. Part grief-counseling center, part best playhouse ever, the organization offers biweekly support-group sessions and other services for children and teens dealing with loss. Patrick and Dayana still participate in the center’s group sessions, even though the family lives roughly 40 minutes away, in Toms River.
While Common Ground has brought the young Hollands friendship, solace and connection with other children and teens who have experienced the loss of a family member, it’s also given them the opportunity to relive memories of their father through the foods he loved. The organization runs an unusual program that lets families mourn for lost loved ones in a particularly meaningful way: by creating a dish—with the help of a chef—in the deceased’s honor.
Finding Healing through Food and Friends
Common Ground’s founder and executive director, Lynn Snyder, is a licensed professional counselor with a master’s degree in art therapy. Roughly a decade ago, she found herself drawn to helping people, especially children, deal with death and grief. After attending training in 2007 at the renowned Dougy Center, a grief center for children and teens in Portland, Oregon, she returned determined to create a similar facility at the Jersey shore.
What started in 2009 with three children in a church basement has grown to a thriving nonprofit that occupies most of Snyder’s days. She’s given up her private practice to run the facility full-time, with the help of 45 volunteers, a dedicated board and a part-time administrative assistant. Each month, Common Ground helps roughly 130 children and their families through open-ended support groups.
Within the immaculate two-story house is a series of rooms, each designed to offer different options for children and teens to express their feelings in age-appropriate ways. In addition to attending group sessions in the talking circle, kids may choose from among hundreds of figurines to build scenes in a room filled with sandboxes, play instruments to express themselves in the music area, or pretend they’re doctors in the full-scale hospital room. Snyder says the latter is popular and lets children feel a sense of control in a place they may have seen far too often if their deceased loved one was sick.
Of course, fundraising is an essential part of any nonprofit. Snyder was friendly with Joe Leone, founder of the eponymous and enormously popular catering service and Italian specialty shops in Point Pleasant Beach and Sea Girt. Leone is a powerful figure in the Jersey Shore restaurant scene and participated in Common Ground’s 2014 tasting fundraiser. The father of five had lost a childhood friend when he was eight years old, so the organization’s mission touched Leone deeply. As he learned more, he knew he wanted to get involved—and give area chefs a reason to return to the event time and time again.
“I love making dishes from my past with my grandmother and people in my family. I love the tradition,” he says. “In addition to the loss of the loved one, these children aren’t able to cook with that person—to remember them through the flavors they loved and their tastes.”
So Leone came up an idea: Pair Common Ground’s children and teens with area chefs to create special dishes to honor deceased family members, then feature these dishes at Common Ground’s annual Chefs Extraordinaire event as a way to memorialize these loved ones through food.
Connecting in the Kitchen
When Scott Giordano, chef and co-owner of the Poached Pear, also in Point Pleasant Beach, first heard about the idea from Leone, he jumped at the chance to get involved. He gets many requests to participate in tastings, but the thought of helping children process their grief through cooking resonated with him.
In March 2016, Giordano worked with Madison Zimmermann, 14, on a dish to remember Madison’s sister, Kelly Gordon, who was killed at 22 when she was hit by two taxi drivers in New York City in April 2014. Their mother, Lorraine Zimmermann, worried about the grief her other four children felt after Kelly’s death, especially her two youngest, Madison, and Emily Zimmermann, now 12. She heard about Common Ground and began taking the girls to group sessions there roughly three months after the crash.
Lorraine says Kelly enjoyed cooking and baking, so creating a recipe in her name to remember her felt especially appropriate. To start the process, Giordano and Madison met at the Poached Pear and went to work. They discussed foods that Kelly loved and Giordano’s ideas about how to make the dish delicious. Once they settled on gnocchi—one of her favorites—they talked about how to incorporate ingredients that would make it flavorful and right for the season. The result was “Kelly’s Spring Gnocchi,” a potato gnocchi with wilted arugula, toasted pine nuts, oven-dried tomatoes and a sage brown butter sauce. Giordano liked the dish so much, he’s considering adding it to his restaurant’s menu. Emily also worked on a dish at Prime 13, another Point Pleasant eatery, in honor of Kelly.
“She’s in our hearts forever and [the stories] keep her with us,” Lorraine says. “Madison said, ‘I know Kelly would be smiling from ear to ear if she could see us right now.’”
In March 2016, Common Ground arranged 17 such collaborations between chefs and grieving young people. Being in the kitchen, working on the food, inevitably leads to conversation about the person who died and what they were like, giving the kids opportunities to share memories and stories. That’s a welcome opportunity for many of them, Snyder says. Often after the loss of a loved one, people around the children avoid talking about the person who died because they don’t want to upset anyone. Unless the child is visibly upset, people assume they are fine, but “that’s not how grief works,” Snyder says.
For the Hollands, being in the kitchen with Patrick and chef Chris Brandl at his renowned restaurant, Brandl, in Belmar allowed all of them to talk freely about John and his love of food and family while creating “Johnny’s Garlic Shrimp.”
“I think food is the quickest way to the heart. Just the satisfaction of something that’s going to live on through your body,” Brandl says.
At the latest fundraising event on April 7, 2016, Patrick helped Brandl serve the shrimp dish to more than 400 attendees. A photograph of John sat on the serving station, a reminder of the man and the love that went into preparing the dish. Since the event is a celebration of the deceased loved ones, the challenge of explaining the death or dealing with someone else’s discomfort is eliminated and the children can just talk freely about the people they love, Snyder says.
“It was pretty cool to see everyone together enjoying this great food,” Patrick says.
Shortly after his first chefs event in 2014, Leone joined the Common Ground board. His mission to create an event chefs wouldn’t want to miss has been accomplished—both Brandl and Giordano say they are committed to participating in the event annually because of its meaning and atmosphere of hope and healing.
“This could be a very sad event—you have these children who have all experienced a significant loss. The kids are free to talk about their loved ones and their memories. It becomes a celebration in a way,” Susan says.
More about Common Ground
Common Ground Grief Center works with children, teens and families to provide support when they are grieving a death. The center offers bi-weekly open-ended support group sessions and a facility equipped for various modalities to express grief in age-appropriate ways.
For more information about Common Ground Grief Center or to work with a child or teen to participate in the 2017 Chefs Extraordinaire event, visit commongroundgriefcenter.org, call 732.606.7477 or send an email to email@example.com.