Nearly a decade ago, Emilio Parga, MAED/ECM ’03, decided to follow his dreams and ignore naysayers. He established the nonprofit Solace Tree, an organization that has helped more than 5,000 bereaved children and teens and has spawned six books, an award-winning documentary and national speaking engagements. Turns out, ignoring critics has its merits.
Based in Reno, Nevada, Solace Tree helps children, teens and adults heal from the loss of a loved one through peer support groups, where death and loss are not taboo topics. Parga’s experiences inspired his book, No Child Should Grieve Alone, along with journals written with children for children that sell around the world. He teamed up with the Reno PBS affiliate to produce the Solace Tree documentary, You’ll Always Be With Me, a 2011 Silver Communicator Award winner. Meanwhile, he spreads his message of the importance of explaining death to young children as a speaker for the American Counseling Association, Cancer Treatment Centers of America and National Association for the Education of Young Children. He also is a member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children.
Parga didn’t set out to prove his critics wrong, but to act on a deep inner conviction. Good-intentioned people warned him: “Don’t waste your time. You’ve got to raise money, and you’re going to have a hard time.” Others asked: “It’s about death—who is going to talk about death?” He acknowledged the risk, but didn’t let it dash his dreams. “I just kept trusting the process and knowing it wasn’t about me—it was about helping children and their families,” he says.
Flash back to 2002, when Parga worked as an elementary school teacher while finishing his master’s degree in school counseling with the University of Phoenix. Outside of the classroom, he often helped youngsters cope with turmoil from losing a parent to suicide, accidental death or cancer. Sadly, by the time children are school-aged, many have lost a beloved family member or pet. But because death is such a taboo topic in society, many young children lack an understanding of what it means when someone they know dies, making it difficult to deal with the loss.
“I could identify with these kids because I lived it,” says Parga, who lost his father at age 10. He recalls hiding his feelings, convinced that adults wouldn’t listen. Later, in his early teens, he briefly turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope with repressed emotions. “It’s a good thing I was in sports because that’s what saved me,” he says.
Seeing the plight of children with unresolved grief, he delved into research to find resources in the community to help them, but found nothing. Meanwhile, Parga, who is a father himself, was diagnosed with early-stage cancer, a pivotal, life-changing moment that led to his decision in 2004 to quit his day job as a school counselor and launch Solace Tree with $40,000 of his own inheritance money.
“Once I was diagnosed with cancer, I knew I wanted to start doing something different with my life,” says Parga, whose education career included counseling, teaching mainstream and special education students and volunteering with the Special Olympics for more than 10 years. “I love working with children, and it was a good life,” he says. “But I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector.”
He faced the usual hurdles that come with launching a nonprofit—building awareness, finding sponsors and enlisting the help of volunteers. “It was hard at first to go from door to door, business to business, foundation to foundation, looking for sponsors to support children who are dealing with death,” Parga says. Solace Tree receives no government funding and relies solely on private donations and professional training fees for support.
Today, with the help of 58 volunteers and three paid staff members, Solace Tree provides open-ended peer support group meetings to more than 250 children and teens, ages 2 to 18, and more than 100 adult family members or caregivers each month. The groups are ongoing and meet every other week for 75 minutes, free of charge. Divided by age, the groups offer children and teens a mix of opportunities to share their experiences of grief and loss. Children may choose to paint or draw a picture of their heart using colors and shapes to depict how their heart feels, write a story or draw a picture of a special time they shared with the person they lost, or draw before and after pictures of their home, family or themselves related to the loss of a loved one.
The organization also hosts Camp Solace, a summer bereavement camp for children and teens, ages 5 to 18, on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. Along with the usual camp activities—swimming, kayaking, playing volleyball, making crafts and participating in group skits—children and teens are given time to write in journals, share memories and memorabilia, hold a luminary ceremony and do other reflective activities that symbolize the memory of their loved one.
“I’ve always been honored and privileged to be in the lives of children, teens and adults—to hear their stories of love and loss, grief and anger,” says Parga, who is now cancer-free. “A death turns anyone’s life upside down. But we’re seeing more joy than sorrow because we’re commemorating and memorializing our loved ones.”