By Natalie Townsend
Published in The Williamson County Sun August 10, 2014
At some point, everyone experiences the loss of a loved one. The Christi Center was created so people don’t have to endure it alone.
In 1985, Don and Susan Cox’s lives were turned upside down when they learned that Susan’s 20-year-old daughter, Christi, had been killed by a drunk driver. Wracked with grief and facing familial strain, the family explored options for emotional support in their hometown of Austin, but found none.
On the second anniversary of Christi’s death, the Cox family started a non-profit in their living room: For the Love of Christi. Their goal was to provide free, ongoing, peer-based support for those dealing with the loss of a loved one.
“Susan and Don are in touch with people who have been clients for 27 years, our original clients. They talk to them and they call them on their loved ones’ anniversaries. This whole organization very much has that culture,” said Cara Fox, executive director of The Christi Center. “I mean there’s a lot of overlap between our donors and our volunteers. People joke that you never leave The Christi Center–not in a creepy way, a good way, because there’s always a place for you.”
The group quickly outgrew Don and Susan’s living room. In the 28 years since it was founded, the non-profit has been rebranded as The Christi Center and changed locations.
The center, now based out of a house in Austin, offers group meetings for children, adults and teenagers, as well as meetings for those who lose a loved one to suicide or crime. It also provides a free booklet called, “Coping with Grief,” that educates people on how to communicate tactfully with the bereaved.
The original organization has more than 200 volunteers that provide more than 1,200 hours of service a year–the equivalent of five full-time employees. Sixty percent of the organization’s funding comes from past clients who donate to the center.
Former clients also make up a majority of the volunteers. They facilitate the groups by training other volunteers, manage the healing garden out front, help maintain the yard, stuff the mail and write newsletters. There’s a real sense of community ownership, Ms. Fox said.
“Because it’s a peer-based support group, they’re helping each other through the grieving process,” Ms. Fox said. “So there will be that mom that says, ‘I don’t come to groups for myself anymore. I come because when I first started coming, there was that mom that was five years down the road and I knew that if she could make it, I could make it, too.”
A zebra in a herd of horses
Jimmy and Mary Shields of Georgetown lost their 21-year-old daughter Amy in 2004. At their daughter’s visitation, an unknown couple walked over and handed them a piece of paper that read, “If you need some help, call us.”
The Shields kept the piece of paper and eventually contacted that couple, who took them to The Christi Center.
“From there we kept going every Monday night and just listening to others and seeing that hope in their eyes–that ‘yes, you can get through this,'” Ms. Shields said. “You will never forget, but you will get out of the dark hole you’re in.”
The unofficial mascot of The Christi Center is a zebra. When experiencing grief, many clients feel like a zebra in a herd of horses, Ms. Fox said. Although shaped like a horse, the stripes set them apart.
In the wild, zebras lean on each other for support and camouflage–similar to how clients at The Christi Center lean on each other for understanding.
“Sometimes you need to come to a place where you can be with other zebras,” Ms. Fox said.
Seeds of Strength
Seeds 9f Strength gave $4,500 to The Christi Center this year, enabling the organization to continue its services in Georgetown, which are based out of the Community Resource Center, 805 West University Avenue.
The $7,500 grant the non-profit received from Seeds of Strength in 2012 allowed The Christi Center to expand its services to Georgetown and hire part-timer Victoria Vallez to run children’s groups.
The organization offers two children’s groups a month for kids ages 5 to 12, as well as a concurrent support group for their parents or guardians. The money from Seeds of Strength was instrumental in providing children’s groups in Georgetown, Ms. Fox said. She believes that The Christi Center’s Georgetown presence will grow.
“It’s hard for families,” Ms. Fox said. “I feel like for people to wake up every day and choose hope and strength and choose happiness again–they have to do it every single day. You have to carry the burden the rest of your life no matter what, but you can choose how to carry it.”