SOUTH PORTLAND — After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Diane Engel of Brunswick said, the family and youth programming at the Dempsey Center helped her children “feel normal in an abnormal situation.”
Those services were previously offered only in Lewiston. Now, the Dempsey Center also offers cancer support services for families with children and/or teens at 778 Main St.
Healing Tree Youth & Family Services include counseling and consultation services for parents and individuals, with parent-child and family therapy services available. Workshops and programs are designed specifically for youth and families, and include therapeutic adventure day trips and summer programs, and resources such as a lending library and take-home resource packs for children and teens.
Kailie Sullivan, who manages Healing Tree, said the programming is free and aims to aid all young people dealing with cancer, whether it’s their own diagnosis or that of a friend or relative.
“(The Healing Tree)is based on the idea that when a family comes in … they really need wrap-around, personalized support,” Sullivan said.
Each family is paired with a counselor who works with them to determine their needs and which services and structure would benefit them most.
“We recognize that when cancer impacts one person, there’s almost always a ripple effect,” Sullivan said. “It happens to a family, not just one person. That need wasn’t really addressed comprehensively (before the Dempsey Center), so staff recognized the unmet need.”
Everyone copes differently with bad news, Sullivan added, especially children.
“Kids are not miniature adults,” she said. “The way that they process and express emotions and feelings is very different, dependent on their developmental stage. … Age doesn’t always correlate with emotional maturity or ability to understand.”
Further, she noted, every family is different, too.
Engel said she and her family have been utilizing the services offered at the Dempsey Center’s Lewiston location for two years.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Lexi, and her 13-year-old son, Aidan, take part in teen group programs as often as once a week.
“At the time the Dempsey Center offered the kids the program, the cancer was still so new. I had been diagnosed a month before,” Engel said. “It’s allowed them to have a safe space where they can talk about their feelings. … Everyone there has been impacted in some way.”
She said her children also attended the center’s summer camp, Space to Breathe, a five-day overnight stay based at Camp Kieve in Nobleboro, where teens have the chance to take a break from and reflect on the challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis.
According to Engel, when she first learned of her cancer and told her children, they didn’t understand how to process the news or what it meant, because they didn’t have a “baseline.”
“From my perspective it was a lot different. … When I told them they both thought I was going to die immediately, they didn’t know,” Engel said. “It was so new and scary.”
Since partaking in Healing Tree services, Engel said she’s seen a “noticeable difference” in how her kids talk and think about cancer.
“They’re kids dealing with an adult situation,” she said. “It’s taught them to feel accepted … (and) realize it’s OK to feel upset and anxious and fatigued. It’s really opened their eyes.”
About 205 individuals utilize Healing Tree services in Lewiston, according to Sullivan. So far, only a handful or so have taken advantage in South Portland.
“Half the battle is reaching them,” she said.
Engel, who maintains a Facebook page and blog, Diane’s Warriors, where she keeps followers updated and raises money for the Dempsey Center, praised Sullivan and the Dempsey Center for their dedication to families in Southern Maine.
She said she’s excited to see the Healing Tree grow, and hopes the Dempsey Center could eventually expand enough to meet families in northern Maine, where she believes they’re needed most.
“It’ll be amazing to be able to serve more families,” Engel said. “The need will not go away. That’s the sad part, there’s always going to be someone being diagnosed.”
Diane Engel of Brunswick, center, with her father Jay Lord, left, husband Jeremy, and children Lexi and Aidan at the 10th annual Dempsey Challenge last September in Lewiston. Engel said since her breat cancer diagnosis about two years ago, her Brunswick family has utilized the center’s Healing Tree services, which are now also available in South Portland.