By Jenna O’Donnell |
RED BANK – Ever since losing her husband late in 2016, Kathy Agresto had been feeling lost.
“He was my best friend,” said Agresto, who lives in Eatontown. A year after her husband’s passing, Agresto said she was still despondent. “I was really at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak.”
Friends recommended that she call Stephy’s Place, a support center based on Front Street for people dealing with grief and loss, so Agresto gave it a try. She called the center on a Tuesday and was in a group two days later, sitting in a comfortably furnished room and listening to other men and women talk about losing their spouses and coping with their feelings of sadness, loneliness and loss.
At first, Agresto said, she didn’t say much during the sessions, preferring to let others do the talking. But more than a year after she began to attend those free weekly sessions, Agresto describes the center and the people in her group as an essential part of her life.
“You talk about things with people that are going through the same thing,” she said. “Nobody understands until they’ve been there. Here, you’re with people that have gone through it, too. In my case, I lost half of me. I still don’t feel like a whole person, but I’m a lot better off with Stephy’s Place because I know I have support.”
Stephy’s Place, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit, was founded in 2015 by a group of women hoping to give those going through grief and loss a place to go. Co-founder Sheila Martello, who lost her husband during the attacks on 9/11, recounts meeting a local mother named Stephy Hardman Kaminoff who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. In seeing Kaminoff’s family rallying around her, Martello recalled dealing with the loss of her husband.
“I thought, how did we get through that?” she said. “It was our peer support group.”
That group of women, all of whom had lost a spouse or a child on 9/11, met every Tuesday morning for three years, and kept in touch even after they no longer needed to meet weekly. Martello wanted to create that safe space for others coping with loss, and pitched the idea of a peer support center to members of her former group. The response was unanimous.
Pat Wotton, a member of the group, quickly started to research whether similar centers existed in the area.
“There was nothing,” Wotton said. “Everything else was short-term. We wanted people to have peer support for milestones and anniversaries.”
Three years later, Stephy’s Place hosts 27 separate groups – and more than 200 individuals – in weekly morning or evening sessions. Led by facilitators and free of charge, the groups are separated to deal with different types of grieving including loss of a spouse, parent, child or sibling and also covers loss due to suicide and divorce.
“We live in a culture where people want you to get over your grief as soon as possible,” Martello said, noting that everyone copes with grief and loss differently and that’s OK. “Our goal is to provide a safe environment for people to share their stories.”
For many, that means accepting that you’re never going to be the same, Martello says, and finding ways integrate that into your life and find a new purpose. She recounted a story of a woman in tears at a session who had been blaming herself for driving her husband to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance. A woman next to her began weeping, and revealed that she had also driven her husband and that she shared that same feeling of guilt. In another session, a young widow, a mother with two young children and without a high school diploma, is being tutored by a peer in her group who is a former school teacher. Various other groups have also branched out and begun to socialize with one another. Others, like Kathy Agresto, have been inspired to volunteer at Stephy’s Place and help people, too.
In the year since she started sessions at Stephy’s Place, Agresto said her loved ones have noticed the change in her as she’s become more involved.
“The fact is that you’re able to cope with life and get on even though you’re heartbroken,” Agresto said. “You’re not a happy camper, but you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re living and you’re helping other people. And in helping other people, I feel like I get helped.”
The free sessions at Stephy’s Place are supported entirely by the generosity of its donors. The center holds fundraisers to support its operation throughout the year, with the next one, “A Mourning Walk” scheduled on Sunday, Sept. 9 at Seven Presidents Park. The 3-mile morning walk will be a time for walkers to remember those that they have loved and lost while the date marks the organization’s third anniversary. Registration and sponsorship information can be found at stephysplace.org/walk.
“We want to give people what we got,” said Martello. “It’s amazing to be able to give that back to people. We have no agenda – we just want to help.”
This article was first published in the August 2 – 9, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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