Kenidy Eckerman poses with Amanda the Panda, the namesake of the grief counseling nonprofit organization Eckerman volunteered with this summer.
Kenidy Eckerman poses with Amanda the Panda, the namesake of the grief counseling nonprofit organization Eckerman volunteered with this summer.
November 1, 2013

Life has one constant - that each of us will die.

Those we leave behind are left to pick up the pieces, to overcome the sorrow, despair, and often heartbreaking sense of loss.

A West Des Moines-based nonprofit organization called Amanda the Panda aims to help individuals of all ages deal with that grief. Whether the loss was recent or years ago, violent or calm, Amanda the Panda volunteers are there to listen - a critical component in the healing process, explained Carroll natives Amanda Pietig and Kenidy Eckerman.

Pietig, 23, is the daughter of Donna and Al Pietig. Her mother is a manager at Old Home Bakery Outlet, and her father is a small-business owner and farmer. Eckerman, 22, is a daughter of Mike Eckerman, owner of Eckerman Jewelry, and Brenda Schultes, who works at Carroll Eye Clinic.

Pietig graduated from Kuemper Catholic High School in 2008, a year before Eckerman. Both attended Iowa State University and completed degrees in child, adult and family services, Eckerman also with a minor in event management. They graduated together this summer after completing 360 community-service hours with the nonprofit.

"Grief is something - it never ends," said Pietig. "You don't go through the five stages of grief and it's over with and you'll never feel it."

Pietig speaks from personal experience. The summer before her senior year of high school, she lost her younger sister, Amber, in a car accident. Her senior year was consumed with thoughts of how her sister, who would have been a sophomore, was missing. Pietig had the support of friends, family and the entire Kuemper community, but while that love can comfort, it can't erase the pain.

Her experience with loss led her to volunteer with Amanda the Panda. A very empathetic person, Pietig's ability to openly talk about losing her sister helped her relate to the children and teens involved in the nonprofit's programs.

"There are things that always trigger thoughts of 'Oh, I wish she was here' or 'I miss her,'" she explained. "I know if I'm still feeling this six years later, what about people who just lost them a year ago or a month ago?"

Amanda the Panda helps children, families and friends deal with grief in all its stages by hosting eight-week-long support groups in the fall, spring and winter, followed by a daylong or overnight camp. The support groups connect peers who are the same age, ranging from kindergarteners to adults.

Entire families can participate, but by separating individuals by age group, children can express their feelings without worrying that a parent might overhear them, Pietig explained. Confidentiality is key.

"A lot of kids at first aren't willing to open up. They don't want to talk about it," she said. "If you make it more of an active thing, where they're not telling you, but showing you, it's a lot better."

For example, the camps include an anger wall, where children can write anything they want in washable marker that can be erased. They also include a love wall, where the children can write a favorite memory of the individual they lost in permanent marker.

The organization's recent move to a new center aided in this endeavor. Before, employees and volunteers all worked in a single office suite. Now, they work out of a house that was donated to them. The move allowed Amanda the Panda to offer separate areas for adults, teens and children. It also installed a "steam room," a padded room in which children can scream and yell and punch to get out anger, because anger is OK to feel, explained Pietig.

The deaths can range from a sibling lost in an unexpected or violent act, to a grandparent who peacefully passed away. Amanda the Panda is also making an effort to address suicide, a rising issue that people don't know how to talk about.

"There is never one similar death," Pietig said. "Everybody grieves differently and everybody takes your advice differently, and you need to be ready and willing to figure (that) out."

Pietig served as a programming intern, working to organize camp activities and interview families seeking Amanda the Panda's services. Eckerman served as a leader for one of the kindergarten camps, an experience she described as "eye-opening."

"It hits you hard," she said. "You don't know these people, but you just want to help them."

Eckerman said that she was struck by the family atmosphere and the way the peers came together, whether they had known each other for hours or years.

"The friendships you see form - that in itself is support they're not going to lose afterward," she said. "Opening up in general is clarifying for them, I think."

For many, there is an element of guilt, wondering if there was anything they could have done differently. The peer groups help them work through it, Eckerman explained.

"They're able to see a light in the darkness," she said. "They will eventually find the joy back, even if they're really upset about it."

Both women were also involved in the preparation of cheer boxes. Cheer boxes are given to nominated families during the holiday season. They contain 25 gifts - one for each day of December - to help family members remember their lost loved one, or to simply lift their spirits. The boxes are customized based on the interests of each family.

Eckerman also used her event-planning minor to organize a golf tournament fundraiser, a vital part of the operations of the small nonprofit that gives its services for free. According to Pietig, the marketing for the nonprofit has been primarily word-of-mouth, but has drawn families from across the state, from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City to Council Bluffs.

"It doesn't have to be a recent death. If you've experienced death and you're suffering, they want you to come in, to get the help you can and find connections with people," Pietig said. "People think they're alone, but they're not."

With only three full-time paid employees and one part-time employee, Amanda the Panda relies heavily on the support of volunteers. According to Nancy Quinn, office manager for Amanda the Panda, about 500 people volunteer with the nonprofit each year, enabling the organization to direct between 60 and 65 percent of its funding straight to programming that serves more than 1,000 families each year. In addition to camps and cheer boxes, the organization also offers fun days and family nights to reconnect individuals from the support groups, and presents programs at local colleges and schools.

"They are absolutely essential," Quinn said of the volunters who help with all of the programming, as well as several fundraisers. "We couldn't carry out our mission to help grieving families without them."

Both Eckerman, now employed at her father's jewelry store in Carroll, and Pietig, working with teenage girls at the at-risk Youth Emergency Services & Shelter in downtown Des Moines, hope to work with Amanda the Panda again in the future. They agree that the bear's key lesson is applicable throughout life.

"The panda doesn't talk, she's only there to listen," Pietig said of the organization's cuddly mascot. "If you have a friend who has lost somebody, don't say you know how they feel, because you don't. Just say you're there to listen."

Though she has not lost someone close to her, Eckerman agreed, adding that her friendship with Pietig has helped her learn to "read the signs."

"You don't have to say anything at all, or relate," she said. "You just have to give them a shoulder."