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News and Updates

My Weekend with the National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children
 Posted: 12/1/18 Julia Dunn, M.Ed. (Program Director)

Olivia’s House is a member of The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), an organization that houses all of the resources and specialists to support families through the lengthy and often traumatic journey of child abduction or exploitation. Years ago, NCMEC connected to Olivia’s House so that we could act as a safety net and support system for families after a missing child is presumed or declared deceased. Many times we are called in to support a family after a loss, or to prepare them for the imminent death of a loved one. But what if that loss is ongoing; a cycle of optimism and disappointment when you aren’t sure if your child is coming home? Although we focus heavily on death at Olivia’s House, there are a myriad of losses that can affect a child’s life. This training gave us the chance to learn about these losses so that we can better understand how to support a family if they would need the support of Olivia’s House after abduction.


It was a crisp October morning when I drove into Old Town Alexandria to attend a conference being held by the Family Advocacy and Outreach Network division of NCMEC. I had seen the movie “Taken,” so I knew about child abduction, right? Wrong. It is simpler to think of a child being abducted by a “bad guy” who needs to be outsmarted before the inevitable “happy ending” reunion. But the reality is that nearly three-quarters of abducted children are taken by a biological parent. We heard first-hand stories of individuals who had lived through this as children and who had found it impossible to assess which of their parents was in the right, and whether there even was a “bad guy.” The Amber Alerts flashing across the highway tell us one story, but that very child may feel that they are with the ideal parent living a life of luxury, and not realize the danger they’re in.


We also heard stories of children (and subsequently their families) who were victims of online sexual exploitation. Once again, it’s easy to draw to mind a vision of a young girl, abandoned, and knowing nothing to turn to but the life of a sex worker. But this is not the most common experience of sexploitation. Online predators can spend months grooming a teen to become sexually complicit in pictures and videos. The exploiter can assume various roles ranging from trusted peer or mentor to threatening techie claiming to have access to private files. These losses are lengthy and complex.


During the weekend-long training, a roomful of therapists and mental health workers were able to come together to be educated on these issues. Olivia’s House is able to provide education to the community because we continue to educate ourselves. We are so grateful to NCMEC for this opportunity, and even more grateful for the opportunity to use this knowledge to expand our support of children experiencing loss in the community.

  Posted: 11/1/18 by K.C. Delp (Executive Director)

No one could see it. Not even him. Succumbing to a secret battle with mental illness, 17-year-old Holden Layfield devolved from a gregarious, small-town Georgian football player to a lost, self-medicating prophet.


Tamlin Hall’s award winning film, “Holden On,” portrays the complexity of mental illness and teen suicide, while opening the door for conversations about this difficult but critical community concern.


We were blessed when our dear friend, Hearts Can Heal alum and Confessional designer, Monika Lawrence, arranged for Tamlin to visit Olivia’s House before the screening of his film at York College. We were not quite sure what to expect, but ten minutes into our meeting we knew we had made a lifelong friend! Our short meeting turned into a three-hour conversation about film, mental health, our life’s passions and future projects.


“Holden On” is a remarkable film. The writing is accurate, the acting is precise, the direction is authentic, and the manner in which Holden’s life is honored is profound. Tamlin is currently traveling the east coast with select tour dates, so do yourself a favor click this link, and find a showing close to you.

How Hearts Can Heal By Giving Back
 Posted: 10/1/18 by Michelle Fox (Administrative Director) 
One of the many highlights of my job is having the opportunity to meet with new volunteers. In doing so, I have met a multitude of unique and inspirational people! Relocating from Boston and in an effort to plant roots in the York community, Liz Erenberg volunteered her musical talents to our mission. Little did we know, Liz would evolve from our in-house flutist, to a Companion volunteer working directly with the children. She has been faithfully volunteering within our programs and recently asked to author a short article reflecting on her experience at Olivia’s House. We were thrilled to read it and are equally excited to share it with you! 
 "A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal."
- Steve Marboli, motivational speaker and author 

Grief makes appearances on its own schedule. For me, it paid me a visit on a beautiful summer day shortly after I moved to York, PA. I was out for a walk and realized that I was lost in a neighborhood I wasn’t familiar with. I decided to head back towards downtown, and then stumbled on Olivia’s House. The tagline, “a grief and loss center for children,” made me do a double take. My mother passed away when I was 8, and I’d never seen anything like this before. I walked in, took a tour, and was so moved that I signed up to volunteer as a companion.


During the training, one of the key moments for me was asking about companions who’ve experienced losses themselves. Leslie and Julia answered the question by saying that it is very common, but sharing the experience of loss is just one of many qualities that make a good companion. Leslie then said, lovingly but with no vagueness, “this is so NOT about you.”


In absorbing this, I thought of the fine line between deep empathy and self-actualization. I want to help these kids because I empathize with them, but also because it might help me to see the kind of support that didn’t exist when I was 8. When looking at childhood grief straight in the eye, how could my past experience not come into play?


Luckily, through observation and an open mind, I would learn that being a companion wasn’t nearly as complicated as it seemed. The more I focus on the kids, the more I achieve being a good companion and my own fulfillment. It is also inspiring to recognize how much Leslie, Julie, Michelle and all others in this field give of themselves by taking on family tragedies.


I’ve now been a companion in three programs. I am a newbie compared to the other veterans of several years, and I am grateful to learn from them. The lessons I’ve learned from being a companion are numerous and deep. Kids are pure-hearted. They are most open when they feel safe and unjudged, and getting to that point takes patience. At times, you need to talk about the newest Cheetos flavor for 45 minutes to have one kid feel comfortable enough to express something about their loss. It’s also sometimes the quietest participants who benefit the most. Activities, conversations and props that seem surface-level are in fact incredibly deep.


At the end of each night, I always have a natural high reflecting on its powerful moments. I feel inspired by this organization, and also heartbroken at the stories that make it a necessity. It is one of the most poignant combination of feelings I’ve ever experienced.


The point of being a companion is to give back selflessly, but playing a small part in healing these kids’ hearts makes mine heal a little too. Being a companion makes more meaning out of my loss, but also helps me to move forward in the spirit of serving others. Olivia’s House gives the gift of healing to its families and volunteers, planting seeds for the future when grief will undoubtedly decide to visit.


I am grateful that grief made an appearance in my life on that summer day. Perhaps it was no accident I got lost, because then I found myself at Olivia’s House. When giving back to the community like this, grief can sometimes be a welcome visitor. 
- Elizabeth Erenberg 
Bert Ochterbeck - A Friend to All
 Posted: 9/1/18 by Leslie Delp, MA (Founder and Bereavement Specialist)  
The clock chimes hourly on the front desk in our office suite.  It reminds us of the time but also of a very special man, the man who built it!  Bert Ochterbeck was a treasured friend to the mission of Olivia’s House.  He came through the door within months of our opening.  Bert had made a beautiful piece of art for our center and was proudly donating it to us.  His wife, Judy, had lost her son, Bert’s stepson Kurt, and they both wanted to give back in remembrance of him.
Bert died recently and when Judy called to share the sad news, our mission stood still for a moment to remember the man who helped to make our house a home!
Bert created more than that one piece of stained glass art for Olivia’s House.  As a matter of fact, there are only a few rooms that do not have a “piece of Bert” in them!  Not only did he create art to be displayed in our center, but he created a piece to be auctioned off at the Olivian Gala, as well as an item for a special Christmas auction that served to pay for the children’s holiday shopping every year!
Bert was one of a kind.  He deserved every honor bestowed on him. We are proud to have nominated him for the Red Cross Hero Award.  When we accompanied him and his family to the awards dinner, he cried.  We were so proud that he was “our Bert,” having been nominated for the care he showed to the Amish families after the Schoolhouse Shooting.  His handmade stained glass angels were gifts from Bert to the families who lost their daughters.  Each child was buried with an angel in her casket, something never done before, breaking with the Amish tradition of simplicity.
Bert will always be remembered for his kindness, his love of children and his dedication to our mission. Our staff fondly recalls his love of long conversations!  Upon learning of Bert's death this summer, we mused that St. Peter would need to coax him through the gates of heaven before he held up the line! We love you and miss you, Bertie!   

When a Celebrity Completes Suicide
 Posted: 8/1/18 Julia Dunn, M.Ed. (Program Director)
Recently our nation (and beyond) took an emotional blow when both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain completed suicide within a week of each other. Many people were shocked that individuals so successful, celebrities who seem to “have it all,” would take their own lives. Part of our mission at Olivia’s House is to educate people about death, and with so many people questioning “Why?” it seemed like a good time for the conversation!


Celebrities are not immune from mental illness. Wealth and fame do not protect any of us from depression and other mood disorders. Depression can manifest in obvious ways: apathy, lack of interest in activities, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. But many times, people with depression are experts at hiding their illness. They present to the world as if everything is fine. They may even be what their loved ones consider a “beacon of light and happiness.”


Spade and Bourdain are individuals who brought a tremendous amount of light and joy to the world. It’s because of this ability to hide the illness that friends and family are so often caught off guard when someone they love completes suicide. The truth is, however, that these loved ones with mental illness may have used their small amounts of energy to give the illusion of joy to those around them.


It is crucial for any individual, but especially one with mental illness, to be surrounded by a strong support system. A support system is comprised of people who genuinely love us for who we are, unconditionally, and will even give us tough love when we need it. We often idolize celebrities to the point at which they no longer seem human; rather, we place them on a pedestal and fluctuate between obsessing over them and criticizing them. A celebrity with mental illness is constantly caught in the uncertainty of not knowing whether the people around them actually appreciate their fundamental humanness or merely admire them for their wealth and status. Because of this, celebrities often lack a strong support system and lack connectedness to others. Because they are emotionally isolated, their depression deepens.


It’s important to remember that no one is invincible. If we expect people at “the top of their game” to be immune to mental illness, we are placing unreasonable pressure on those who look up to us, namely our children, to be perfect. It is okay, and even beneficial, to use these notable suicides to start conversations with our children about mental health issues and the importance of developing coping skills and a strong emotional support system.