Karyna Ortega and her son, Zion, play with toys in the play therapy room. Credit: San Antonio Report / Roseanna Garza

Wonders and Worries, a program dedicated to helping children ages 2-18 whose parents are facing a serious illness, officially opened its doors on Friday at the START Cancer Center at the South Texas Medical Center.

The program is a three-way effort by the Children’s Bereavement Center, START Cancer Center, and Wonders and Worries.

“There has been a gap in our community in providing these kind of services to families who have received a devastating diagnosis,” said Blair Thompson, managing director at the Children’s Bereavement Center. “It may be terminal, it might not be. But parents struggle with how to talk to their kids about that.”

Thompson told the Rivard Report that the Children’s Bereavement Center has done work with families whose loved-ones are facing life-threatening diagnoses, but the program didn’t have as much success as they would have liked.

“When you go to a place called the “bereavement center,” it may feel like you’re giving up hope – and we can’t take that away from people,” Thompson said.

Wonders and Worries is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides services free-of-charge to teach parents how to parent and kids how to cope during a parent’s serious illness. It began in 2011, is the only program of its kind in the U.S., and a first in San Antonio. The START Cancer Center location is the fifth office for the organization.

Alex Gabbi is the executive director for Wonders and Worries in Austin. When his wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, he was able to reach out to Wonders and Worries, where they received services for four years.

“We got counseling around how to talk to our kids, how to address their concerns, and demystified the whole process,” Gabbi said. “We had help for the entire three years that my wife was ill. My daughter continued to receive services for a year after my wife died.”

The program is a six-session curriculum that can be completed in groups or in individual therapy sessions. The curriculum is currently being reviewed within a partnership with UT Austin School of Social Work to get clinical, evidence-based research validation.

Children write down hopes for their parents who are suffering from serious illness. Credit: San Antonio Report / Roseanna Garza

“It is impossible for me to not be completely behind the organization because of what I saw that they did for my kids,” Gabbi told the Rivard Report. “The fact that we have an extremely well-adjusted, healthy family, that is more capable of coping with hard times, [is] because of the instruction and help that we received.”

The program offers group and individual counseling seven days a week. Referrals are welcome from physicians and families facing cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other serious diagnoses.

Adrianna Ortega is a child life specialist with Wonders and Worries and has been with the organization for nine years. She told the Rivard Report that the initial focus of the 6-week curriculum is on education.

“We talk to them about what is happening inside their parent’s body and what the doctors are doing,” Ortega said. “After that we focus on feelings, a lot of self-expression activities using games and art, and then we talk about coping skills.”

Ortega spoke about the range of feelings a child may be experiencing including anger, sadness, anxiety, and worry. They may experience changes in eating and sleeping patterns or difficulty maintaining relationships with friends and other loved ones.

Ortega recalled a family she worked with who had a 3-year old child that was dealing with his sick father. Before the child’s father died unexpectedly, they had been utilizing play therapy to get him to connect to his emotions.

The family continued services with Wonders and Worries, and year later, the child was able to visit his father’s gravesite and asked his mother if he could give his dad a hug. The child laid down in the grass face-down and “hugged” the ground and told his father a story, all while understanding and accepting that his father would not return home.

“That’s a child that is coping well,” Ortega said. “They might not have been coping well without the services they were provided.”

For more information or to schedule an appointment with Wonders and Worries, click here or call 210-736-4847, ext. 247.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.