The Highmark Caring Place gave Marnie Potter something she thought she had lost three years ago when her father died of leukemia -- the courage and strength to be a leader.
Marnie, a Shaler Area High School senior, is asking students and teachers in the district to support the Caring Place next Thursday, which is Children's Grief Awareness Day.
Faculty and staff are being asked to wear blue on the districtwide denim day and make a $5 donation to the Caring Place to support its mission to help grieving children and their families.
"I received tremendous support and understanding through my involvement with the Caring Place these last three years, and I know that even though this year will be hard, I can turn to volunteers and friends there," she said.
Marnie said her senior year will be particularly difficult because of its significance.
"I could never have imagined planning my future and applying to colleges and graduating high school without my dad," she said.
The youngest of six children, Marnie was about to graduate from St. Bonaventure school and start high school when her father died in May 2010. He'd been battling leukemia since Marnie was 11.
Marnie and her sister, Cate, now 19 and a student at Duquesne University, were the only siblings still at home at the time. "At first, we thought we could handle things on our own," she said.
But in September of her freshman year at Shaler Area High School, "Our mom dragged us to the Caring Place. We were amazed at how much we needed it."
She remembered how volunteers divided grieving children into age groups so they could get to know each other. A few sessions later, the teens in her group were put in a dark room and given flashlights. They were asked to use the lights to pull pieces of paper with questions written on them from a large basket. The first questions were general in nature, Marnie said, but soon progressed to the important issues: Why are you here? What happened? What do you want for the future?
Did such group therapy help? "Absolutely. There's so much help just by being able to talk about it," she said.
Soon Cate and then Marnie were talking about it in front of the entire school. Cate began by organizing lunchtime bake sales where students bought goodies and the proceeds were donated to the Caring Place.
When Cate graduated, Marnie took up the cause. In her junior year, she created a video that was played over the district's television station, where she talked about her loss and explained what Highmark Caring Place did and how it helps grieving families.
The response was immense. Donations from students and staff raised $3,986.
And the comments she received continued the healing.
"I was surprised by how many people didn't know my dad had died," Marnie said. Others came to her and commented that what she did took "amazing strength" while others shared their own stories of loss.
"It made me feel better. I was putting myself out there by making that video and it made me feel good that it touched people," she said.
"Sometimes, no one watches those videos [that are presented during homeroom period]," she said.
But one friend told Marnie, "You could have heard a pin drop" in her homeroom.
Marnie, Cate and their mother still attend sessions at Highmark Caring Place in Marshall every other week.