Not long after Carol Pugh moved back from San Diego to the Bay Area in 2008, a tragic event struck her family. Her husband was murdered by a coworker, leaving behind Pugh and their two young children. Faced with the sudden loss, Pugh, new to the area, was not sure what to do.
"I had no sense for the community yet. All of a sudden this happened to me, and I had no idea about how life should go on," she said.
Her friends, concerned, referred her to Kara, a Palo Alto nonprofit grief-counseling organization serving the Bay Area. Since its founding in 1976, Kara has offered peer counseling, providing clients with emotional validation and support from trained volunteers.
After meeting and talking with people who had gone through similar experiences, Pugh said she learned what to anticipate in the process of grieving. She was able to gradually face the harsh facts and move forward.
"They let us, especially my 5-year-old and 3-year-old kids, know that we are not alone," Pugh said of her Kara peers. "I have learned that I was not crazy at all and the whole process of walking through grief is all natural."
This year, the agency received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund to continue and expand its work.
One of the key aspects of Kara's approach is the peer-counselor match. A first appointment is made when a counselor who shares a common experience or personality with the client is identified.
"Grief work is a very unique niche, and you have to find the right person that is extremely comfortable with an uncomfortable subject," said Stephanie Demos, development director for Kara. "We know our volunteers so well. That's why we are able to find the right match. Even if it's not, both parties can say, 'It's not the match,' and change."
Kara's office is located inside an old house on Kingsley Avenue, a cozy alternative to a sterile therapist's office or hospital. According to Demos, everything in the Kara office is maintained to make people feel at home.
"It's like going to grandma's," said Jonathan Frecceri, community outreach and education director for Kara.
Due to the complicated nature of human emotions, Demos said that what Kara does on a daily basis has always been very challenging.
"Grief is an individual fingerprint," she said. "And the problem is that we are a culture that doesn't acknowledge death very well. It's always going to be a hurdle."
Unfortunately, Demos said, the fast-paced corporate culture many people work in does not allow time for grief to be relieved, though she acknowledged people are sometimes better off busy.
Today, Kara has grown from a peer-counseling service to include a variety of programs such as end-of-life counseling, a youth and family program, Community Outreach and Education (CORE) and a grief-related therapy program, all tailored to meet different needs of clients.
Apart from grief-related therapy, all Kara services are free of charge. Daily operations, including training volunteers, need support from the local community, staff said.
As a Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund recipient, Kara is now looking to expand its reach in surrounding communities, such as East Palo Alto.
"After the recent crash that killed a school girl, we were there working with the Ravenswood School District to counsel students," Frecceri said. "We found almost every kid there knows someone in his or her family who was shot or killed. There's no reason that we should not help those on the other side of the freeway."
Training volunteers, especially those who are bilingual, to achieve a greater network is also on Kara's outreach agenda.
"I have not volunteered for Kara yet," Pugh said. "But it is the thing I want to do in the future, to give back."
The annual Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund drive has a goal of raising and giving away $250,000 to local nonprofits serving children and families. People may donate at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/holidayfund. One hundred percent of donations go to the selected organizations, which will be chosen in April. The campaign runs through early January 2012.