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New bereavement groups in Riverhead aim to support those coping with loss from suicide or overdose

The founders of most businesses and organizations would be thrilled to find themselves needing to expand to meet the needs of a growing client base.

The founders of The Neighborhood House are not. In fact, they’re concerned.

The people that the Neighborhood House serves are literally crying out for help as they grieve the loss of a loved one to suicide or drug overdose. And there are more of them than the Neighborhood House can serve right now.

Founded in 2013 in the Sayville area by Rich D’Andrea and Michelle Virga, the Neighborhood House, a non-profit organization, offers a unique approach to support family and friends mourning the death by suicide or drug overdose of someone close to them. D’Andrea, as a funeral director, and Virga as a school social worker had a vivid awareness of the special needs that family survivors have as they try to work through grief that may also be linked to guilt and/or social stigma.

Now the Neighborhood House has come to Riverhead, in partnership with Peconic Bay Medical Center, in response to a large number of requests for help from our area.

The Connections Program is the backbone of the Neighborhood House. The name Neighborhood House was chosen to evoke the warmth of a community caring for its own. Mourners, counselors and volunteers bond into a community that supports its members and offers them hope, compassion, acceptance and healing.

After an initial intake screening, groups of 12 to 15 people meet once a week for eight weeks for two and a half hours each night. The first part of the evening is a communal home-cooked meal supplied by volunteers from the local area. After dinner, a lead facilitator — a clinically trained counselor experienced in traumatic loss — leads the group in activities, always including an art project. Sometimes an alumnus of the program joins the group to share common experiences.

The Neighborhood House runs four eight-week sessions a year. The program is completely free to participants. The only requirement is that the members commit to attending all eight weekly meetings. Participants can apply to join as many sessions as they need. Michelle Hendrickson, Neighborhood House’s director of development and Jackie Moynihan, one of its social workers, say that long-term friendships develop between many of the mourners. Having gone through the same experiences, they intuitively understand each other’s feelings of isolation and “how could this happen?”

In addition, the group has several prevention programs it runs — speaking at schools, running peer leadership trainings and holding community prevention workshops. According to D’Andrea, families that have had a member commit suicide or die from a drug overdose are at great risk of having another family member do the same thing. He said the organization runs postvention workshops for at-risk family members.

To fund itself, The Neighborhood House runs an annual benefit at the Bayport Flower Houses in the fall and a raffle fundraiser in the spring with donated baskets and a monetary prize. Volunteers help out with administrative work, planning and running the fundraisers and supplying food for the weekly meetings. Peconic Bay Medical Center has given the group room to meet and free publicity. Donors supply bottled water and art supplies. The lead facilitators take a nominal sum for running the sessions. Right now, the organization is looking for people in the Riverhead area to volunteer to become members of the “Dinner Brigade” and supply a meal for the upcoming winter session. They’re also hoping to find an art therapist and an event planner who would donate all or part of their time.

Click here to ask for help. To volunteer to help, call 631-589-0055.

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April Pokorny
April is a writer, reporter and copy editor for the LOCAL news websites. She is a retired educator and proud grandma. April lives in Calverton. Email April