DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — It's the after-school club that no one wants to be in.
A Palm Beach County teacher started "Steve's Club" a few years ago for students who are grieving the loss of a parent.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education
"[My mother] passed away when I was 9 1/2 years old because of suicide," said Luka Peace, a student at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach.
"I lost my dad in October 2020," said student Janaya Stephens.
"I was in Haiti in the earthquake in 2010 and we were under the house," said student Jude Saincyr. "We heard [my mother] call back and we couldn't do nothing about it. They spent hours, they spent hours trying to remove everything. But by the time they reached her, she was already gone."
"Steve was my dad. He passed away in 1978 from glioblastoma. He was 30 and I was 8 months old," said Cori Walls, a teacher at Atlantic Community High School.
Every member of "Steve's Club" has a story they wish they didn't have to tell.
"We were already in the house a lot, so him not being around when we were stuck in one place, that really affected a lot," Stephens said.
"It's something that triggers you for the rest of your life," Walls said.
Walls started the club in her father's name when she realized just how many of her students had lost a parent.
"All these kids need to learn each other. They need to know that other people exist," Walls said. "Because I didn't know that anybody else existed. So I just wanted them to have their own network."
"Steve's Club" has developed into a safe place for conversation, community, and continued growth.
"It's been amazing because after hearing all of their experiences, I know that I'm not alone and that I have someone to rely on and talk to and people who understand me," Peace said.
A butterfly memorial at Atlantic Community High School has allowed the school community to honor those they've lost by writing messages to their loved ones.
"I miss you every day, mom," Peace said. "That's the one I wrote because sometimes there are more words than you could put on a butterfly."
Fostering a sense of comfort.
"I joined the group to get extra support from people who actually understand my current situation," Stephens said.
Walls wants the support to run deeper. She'd like the School District of Palm Beach County to create a database to keep tabs on students who are grieving.
"If we don't know who lost a parent, we really don't know how we can help them," Walls said. "Tracking a child who lost a parent is imperative to keep them emotionally and academically straight for their academic career."
For now, this group they never knew they needed will continue to lift each other up.
"That's how I view 'Steve's Club.' Me being able to share my experience can then help other kids with their experience," Saincyr said.
"It allows you to not be so sad and kind of stick to yourself. Let people know how you feel. Be open to help when it's given," Stephens said.
Just like the butterflies, carrying their message of love and hope.
Royal Palm Beach Community High School and Suncoast High School also have "Steve's Club" on campus.
Walls said 10 more Palm Beach County public schools are committed to starting the program next year, but she wants to see it go district and statewide.
"Steve's Club" has a scholarship program for high school seniors. They are required to attend 80% of "Steve's Club" meetings to be eligible. Last year, the club gave out $6,000 in scholarships.
If you'd like to support the "Steve's Club" scholarship program, visit the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County's website by clicking here. From there, choose "Fiscal Agent Account/Program" from the drop-down menu, then specify that you want to donate to "Steve's Club" in the "Fiscal Agent Account" comments section.
Walls also brings in experts to talk to the students, such as grief counselors and other professionals like members of the Delray Beach Police Department. She works with the students on college preparedness and makes sure they are all college or trade school bound.
Walls said there are about 70 students on Atlantic Community High School's campus that have lost a parent. About 30 of them regularly attend "Steve's Club" meetings. Five students lost a parent to COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Walls said keeping track of students who lost a parent or caregiver would make a big impact on their education.
"The biggest issue I have is tracking the kids. So I spend the majority of my time trying to find the kids that would be identified as losing a parent, a caregiver, or a sibling because the school district, nor does the state, nor does anywhere in the country that I know of have a database that identifies the kids who lost a parent. So if we don't know who lost a parent, we really don't know how we can help them," Walls said. "My thought is if a child goes to an elementary school and they have 'Steve's Club' there and they lost a parent in second grade, well, that second grade, third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade teacher, they are going to communicate about that kid. But what happens when they go to the middle school? That child now has to go to middle school and if they already have 'Steve's Club' there then they know they have a safe place to go to."
Although Walls didn't know her father, his loss is still something that triggers her to this day.
"They say a child who loses a parent before the age of 2 is a double loss because you've lost the opportunity to know what it feels like to have that parent as the role that they would have been and also the person that they would have been," Walls said. "I used to always say it's no big deal, I never knew him. But that's really the attitude that a lot of people have toward a kid who lost a parent. You didn't know them for that long or you didn't know them at all, so you'll get past this which is the complete opposite."
Death is a topic people don't want to talk about, Walls said, but it's needed.
"A lot of people who don't want to talk about it are people who can't relate so they avoid the topic of death. It's too uncomfortable for them, they don't know the right thing to say, they definitely don't say the right thing," Walls said. "There are all different triggers that happen all the time and I want to bring awareness to, especially education for the teachers and administrators, to understand that the child may be smiling, they may be participating in class, in after-school activities. But the loss of their parent is always going to be there. There are children who are suffering internally and no matter how much you think they are OK, they may be OK, they may tell you they are OK, but there will always be a part of them that will have that loss. And don't try to diminish it from them because that's all they have left of their parent."
For more information about "Steve's Club," email firstname.lastname@example.org.