A Place for Healing: Dempsey Center's Healing Tree Program


The Healing Tree program at the Dempsey center helps young people who were affected by cancer cope.

When I was in Maine last fall for the 9th annual Dempsey Challenge, I was lucky enough to meet Kailie Sullivan. She is a social worker with the Youth and Family Services Coordinator & Counselor Dempsey Center. She is one of many doing incredible work to help the countless youth that face the impact of cancer in their lives. She was gracious enough to grant me some of her time and our conversation is below

What drew you to the Dempsey Center?

While working as an oncology social worker at Central Maine Medical Center, I would hear frequently from patients about how wonderful a resource the Dempsey Center was for them. I eventually took a tour and met with some of the staff. I knew then how special a place it was.

Having worked oncology before, what's different about working at Dempsey Center?

There is an intentional effort here to eliminate barriers to accessing support. Working there means I am able to offer services free-of-charge and with the support of a team of colleagues all working with the same important goal in mind: improving the quality of life of anyone impacted by cancer.

How much of what you are doing at Dempsey Center, do you think can be implemented on a broader scale?

Most if not all of the Dempsey Center's programs and services can be expanded and offered on a broader scale. Youth programming, in particular, is a missing piece for many cancer support organizations. Young people are often an overlooked, particularly those who are not patients themselves but who have a loved one with cancer. The Healing Tree, the Dempsey Center's model of care for youth clients, hopes to expand its service offerings to reach many more children and families impacted by cancer so that every child can have access to the support they need.

When crafting the program, what models, if any, did you use?

The Healing Tree model was originally developed by former Dempsey Center Youth and Family Services Coordinator Caroline Bright, LCSW, with help from other Dempsey Center staff members. Healing Tree drew upon many other programs for inspiration, but was designed to address the unique needs of youth and families in the region and in keeping with the Dempsey Center's focus on improving quality of life for all those impacted by cancer, regardless of the nature of that impact.

Why do you feel the services being offered at Dempsey Center are so important?

The Center's mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals impacted by cancer. The services offered here are designed to promote healing and to complement any medical treatment an individual may be receiving. Everything is offered with a personalized and holistic approach. This level of service and programming being offered completely free of charge is a rarity and we are hugely fortunate as an organization to be able to do it. It eliminates barriers for individuals who may not otherwise be able to access support.

Do you find families are resistant to exposing their kids to the world of cancer?

The first instinct for most parents and caregivers is to protect their child from scary topics or stressful events.

However, the overwhelming evidence shows that children will be impacted by a cancer diagnosis regardless of whether or not their parents communicate with them about it. Many children end up feeling more anxious and distressed when they are excluded from the cancer experience of their parent or caregiver. Fostering open and honest communication is one of the key factors in helping kids develop adaptive coping strategies and ultimately greater resilience.

Once a part of the Healing Tree Program, what do you think kids enjoy most about it?

I think youth clients of all ages appreciate that Healing Tree is a special program just for them. It validates and normalizes their experience and cancer impact. Teen Group [our peer support group for teens 12-18 impacted by cancer] is one of our most consistently well-attended Healing Tree programs. We also offer a free five-day therapeutic summer camp for teens impacted by a parent or sibling's cancer called Space to Breathe that is very popular.

As much as we try and teach kids, kids are remarkable teachers.

What is something you have learned from working with them?

I am constantly reminded how amazingly resilient children are — way more than we adults ever give them credit for.

What are some of the biggest challenges to working with adolescents diagnosed with cancer?

Adolescence is already really tough time without a cancer diagnosis in the mix. Teens are still developing their coping skills and tend to rely on avoidance and distraction to get them through stressful situations. This gets difficult for teens going through treatment who can't avoid things like doctors' appointments, side effects, physical changes, etc. They also are in a place developmentally where they are conflicted between wanting independence and still needing to be nurtured. Most teens prefer to talk to their peers rather than an adult counselor. This is where support groups and peer-based programming becomes really key; connecting them with other teens who "get it" can be really impactful.

What has been your biggest reward to working in the field of oncology?

There are so many. I feel it's a privilege to be invited into an individual or family's life at such a vulnerable time. I've always been fascinated and moved by hearing people's stories. Bearing witness to others' suffering is not always easy, but it’s extremely meaningful work. Sharing in client's triumphs and celebrating their joys are also rewarding aspects of the job.

Working with families, have you found a common misconception that parents have in regards to a child's' comprehension of cancer?

Yes. Many parents don't think their child will be able to understand the vocabulary of cancer, including names of diagnoses, procedures or treatments. A lot of parents will be apprehensive to use the word chemo and instead refer to it as medicine. This can become problematic when a child becomes sick or needs to take medicine for things like a cold because they equate it to their loved one’s cancer. Children should ideally be told the name of the cancer, the part of the body where the cancer is and what the treatment may be.

How many families do you think were helped last year through the Healing Tree Program?

The Healing Tree Program served 304 individual youth clients in 2017. This translates to roughly 115 families. We are hoping to reach even more individuals and families in 2018 by expanding services to other parts of the state.

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