CNN honors local hero

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Photo by Kathryn Bartlett

Mary Robinson with the CNN hero award

Kathryn Bartlett and Emily Greenzang

Each year, CNN seeks out “everyday people changing the world” to honor in its Hero of the Year special. The network’s heroes come from all over the globe and all walks of life. This year, CNN focused on an individual in our very own community: Mary Robinson, founder of Imagine: A Center for Coping with Loss, which provides support for grieving children. Robinson joined 9 other heroes on television for the awards ceremony in NYC on Dec. 8. She received $10,000 for Imagine and priceless exposure for her mission.

Robinson first learned of the honor earlier this year when she got a call from CNN announcing that she had made the initial cut for the Top 25 heroes. CNN then came to Imagine’s Mountainside location in February to make a video about Robinson and her organization.

The video announcing Robinson’s selection aired in March. On Oct. 30, she got another call from the network with more good news: She had made it to the Top 10. While Robinson was not ultimately named the top hero, (the honor went to Freweini Mebrahtu of Ethiopia, who designed a reusable menstrual pad allowing girls in Ethopia and other developing countries to stay in school) she received priceless exposure for her mission.

“Imagine exists as a place to help children respond in healthy ways to the feelings they’re having and develop constructive coping tools,” explained Robinson. “When we got the nomination, people called from all over the country, and even the world, sharing their own stories of loss and telling us how much centers like Imagine are needed. I was delighted to have this mission acknowledged and spread.”

Robinson knows how important it is to have people there for you in times of loss. She lost her father at just 14 years old and didn’t receive the support she needed. “My brother and I lost years of our lives to unresolved grief,” she said.

During the late 90s, Robinson learned more about children’s grief support and began volunteering in the field. Eventually, she left her corporate job to support grieving children full time.

In 2004, Robinson learned of the Dougy Center, a child grief support center based in Portland, OR which became the model and inspiration for Imagine. Imagine started thanks to the funding and commitment of Dr. Gerald Glasser, a Westfield native who lost his son on 9/11. Glasser provided the startup funding, and his foundation has been a major source of funding ever since.

Imagine offers support to not only children but also their families. Imagine currently has over 430 children ages 3-18 and their families participating in support groups. Families can use the program for as long as they need; according to Robinson, some only stay for a few months, while others stay for years.

Imagine provides families with bi-weeky support. At each session participants have a pizza dinner together before breaking off into separate groups, where they can talk and engage in activities designed to help them tell their story and share memories.

Throughout each room in Imagine, elephants are displayed everywhere. “We chose the elephant as our symbol because the ‘elephant in the room’ is usually grief,” explained Robinson. “Elephants also never forget, and remembering who died is an extremely important part of healthy mourning.”

Imagine has evolved a lot since its start in 2012. As people learned about Imagine and its mission, the center outgrew the basement of Westfield’s United Methodist Church where it began and moved to its current space in Mountainside. Last April, Robinson opened a second location in Newark. Robinson estimates that Imagine has helped close to 800 families to date.

What’s in store for the future? Robinson wants to visit as many schools as possible to train students who have experienced loss on how to deliver education to their peers. She also hopes to start Imagine University, an online platform that educates people across the country.

“I want kids and their families to see that they’re not alone,” said Robinson. “Good things can actually come from loss. We grow more resilient, compassionate and empathetic.”