What began as a potluck in a church basement has grown into a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support for grieving children and their families.
Ele's Place was originally established in 1991 and named in honor of Ele Stover, who passed away in 1989 at 11 months. Today, Ele's Place has four Michigan locations: Lansing, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Flint.
"My parents were looking for a resource, something to help with the grief," said Bo Stover, Ele's older brother, who now serves on the community board for Ele's Place Grand Rapids.
Bo Stover was 3. His sisters were 5 and 7. His parents found space in a downtown Lansing church basement, connected with others who were grieving, and gathered for a potluck.
"My family was fortunate to find a support system. We were able to address our grief and ultimately turn Ele's Place into an organization that helps other people," Stover said.
"Death is one of the inevitabilities of life. People are just differently equipped to handle it."
Children might not know how to process death or who to turn to for support. Not wanting to burden family members, they might keep their feelings to themselves. Friends who haven't had a similar experience might not understand.
Ele's Place provides a warm and welcoming space for grieving children to connect with new friends who understand how they feel. More a support group than counseling or therapy, kids talk with one another through activities, projects, music and more.
The nonprofit launched first in Lansing and then expanded to Ann Arbor. Three families started the Grand Rapids location after traveling each week from West Michigan to the Lansing location for programming.
"There was a big need for it," said Gerilyn May, who served as Ele's Place Grand Rapids first manager and director and now supports the organization as a donor.
While Starlight Ministries and Gilda's Club both provide services in West Michigan for grieving children, May notes the number of children grieving in West Michigan demanded extra support.
"If grief goes unattended for anyone of any age—and you don't help someone face it and work through it—it can have really negative ramifications," May said.
May's son died in an accident when he was 17, just three years before Ele's Place Grand Rapids was founded. Two years after his death, May's neighbor Maddie, who thought of him as a big brother, died by suicide.
"I truly believe her grief just overcame her. It was really important to me that no other child got to the point where Maddie got, where she didn't think she had an out. She was grieving and no one knew it. She refused to get counseling. I think if there was a place like Ele's Place, we could've talked her into going with some other friends."
This year, Ele's Place Grand Rapids marks its fifth anniversary providing services and tools for kids and families to heal at no charge. That legacy would not be possible without community support.
When the Grand Rapids location launched, there was no budget.
"We didn't even have a location yet," May said.
Third Reformed Church allowed the organization to rent the parish house, yet the space needed substantial renovation.
"To me, it was almost divine intervention," May said. "Everything that we asked for, I don't think we had anybody who said no. That's pretty incredible. I've been fundraising for 17 years and typically, you have to make six or eight asks for one 'yes.' To have every single person say 'yes' ... That's incredible.
"It just kind of fell into place and aligned. I was really passionate about it because I saw so many kids grieving, and I knew they really needed help."
Ele's Place Grand Rapids will mark its fifth-year anniversary through the Healing Hearts Breakfast, Monday, May 7, from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. at Frederik Meijer Gardens. The event, open to the community, will feature a special presentation from Bo Stover and Ele's Place Grand Rapids families. There will also be a moment honoring May's contributions and dedication.
"My parents were just looking for help from loss, the death of a loved one," Stover said. "Ele's Place started just like that—a potluck in a church basement, to now having four regions in the state.
"It's remarkable that Ele's legacy has become what it is."
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.
Photo Courtesy of Ele's Place Grand Rapids.