For those who grieve | November 9, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 9, 2012

For those who grieve

With grant from Holiday Fund, nonprofit Kara helps people cope with loss

by Lisa Kellman

When Michelle Kasper lost her close friend and PTA partner, Ana-Maria Dias, in a car accident last year, she lapsed into a six-month depression that she "couldn't rise above."

Chuck Merritt, the Principal of El Carmelo Elementary School, lost a student in the crash that claimed the lives of Dias, her husband and two children. The Dias family had been the first to greet him as the new principal more than four years ago.

"The loss of this family was so important to so many people that the sense of loss just echoed throughout the school," Merritt said.

With many people reeling from the tragedy, local nonprofit Kara lent a helping hand. At El Carmelo Elementary, Kara counselors visited classrooms, set up booths at back-to-school night, talked with a girl scout troop that one daughter had been a member of, and handed out fliers for anyone who wanted to see counselors in private.

"These are people who actually deeply understand the grieving process and know what to do about it," Merritt said, "Until I started dealing with grief situations and professional studies, I didn't know that you needed people like this."

Kara, a Palo Alto based nonprofit, started in 1976 as a hospice organization and eventually transitioned to grief specific support. They provide therapy to those coping with terminal illness or dealing with the death of a loved one.

In 2011, Kara helped 1,838 individuals cope with trauma and loss. Thirty percent of them resided in crime-laden, impoverished and frequently grief-stricken communities of East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, and 70 percent of those were native Spanish speakers.

"There is a great need there to support these communities, and we need to speak the language to do that," Jim Santucci, director of development and operations at Kara, said.

Kara struggled to provide services to support these Spanish speakers because of the language barrier. But with the help of a $15,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, Kara hired Marizela Maciel last spring as its program and operations manager, and she has since worked to open its services to a broader audience.

Maciel has worked in the nonprofit sector for 18 years and always wanted to help the Spanish-speaking community, she said. The grant is the first installment of a three-year grant.

For the first time in 36 years, Kara, with Maciel, has someone to answer the phone and support English and Spanish speakers alike and make sure that Spanish speakers are offered the same kind of counseling.

"It's a valuable service that, from a cultural perspective. A lot of people don't understand that there are resources out there that deal with grief and help you move forward," Maciel said.

Kara offers one-on-one peer counseling, peer support groups, community outreach and education, end-of-life therapy and clinical group therapy for those who face additional complications. All of these services, except for the clinical therapy, are free.

While it has no Spanish peer support groups, Kara now has literature and grief resources in Spanish and is equipped to respond to bereaved Spanish speakers and English speakers at schools, organizations, and in person. When a fire destroyed one-third of Menlo Park's private nonprofit Beechwood School, Maciel showed up to talk with the Spanish-speaking parents about how to equip oneself and empower oneself in the wake of tragedy and loss and how to help their children handle grief.

"One lady said she wanted to thank us even before we got started because she couldn't believe people who didn't know them would take the time out to talk to them and make them better parents," Maciel said.

As Maciel hoped, the conversation with the parents eventually got onto the topic of the parents' personal grief whether it be from death, deportation issues, gangs or violence. Maciel and another Spanish-speaking counselor listened and talked about how to work through the grief.

Of the 150 volunteer Kara counselors, most were, at one time, clients themselves. As the newest grief counselor and crisis team, Maciel has never been a client of Kara, but has experienced death and loss. She and the volunteers use their experiences of grief to relate to Kara's clients.

"It's different than seeing a therapist who may not empathize as much because they have not been through a tragedy. The counselors can walk the road with you and hold your hand. It's much more meaningful," Kasper said.

With Kara's help, Kasper overcame her depression from losing a friend and has a new outlook on life.

"Out of this tragedy, I have had a reawakening, and my life has taken on a new, different direction in a really positive way," Kasper said.

Through the Weekly Holiday Fund, this same opportunity is now available to Spanish speakers on the Peninsula.

Editorial Intern Lisa Kellman can be emailed at