3/18/2024 The Healing Patch Children’s Grief Program is now recruiting volunteers to serve at family group sessions at the Healing Patch centers in Altoona and Ebensburg. Volunteers serve as facilitators for groups of grieving children aged 3-18, young adults aged 18-25 or adults who bring children or adolescents to the program.

Tales of Two Volunteers

Blair Adult Room Volunteer Joe Bilka

“I am there to guide discussions,” explains Adult Room volunteer Joe Bilka. “It takes a special person to volunteer at the Healing Patch, but it’s very rewarding.” 

Trained as a high school teacher, Bilka transitioned to a career in sales but has remained active in the lives of young people as a cross country coach and basketball referee. He decided to continue his education later in life and attended Penn State Altoona for Human Development and Family Studies. When he noticed a Healing Patch volunteer opportunity shared on Facebook, he thought it would be a great way to utilize what he was learning to serve families. 

“I didn’t realize how perfect a fit the Healing Patch would be when I first applied in 2017,” Bilka says. “Volunteers are kind of a guide, and we help to facilitate discussion. We review three basic rules every group night: confidentiality, safety and ‘I pass.’ We use some starter questions and help participants to share about their loss, grief journey and how they are coping. They’re able to identify that they are not alone in their loss.” 

As the children are broken into age groups with their own trained volunteers, they participate in projects and complete crafts that can spur conversations regarding loss and grief in an age-appropriate way. Adults are made aware of these activities so they can understand how the children and adolescents are being helped with their grieving process and potential conversations that may arise as a result. 

“Although the losses are different in terms of relationship to the person who died, there is common ground, and we have good discussion,” Bilka shares. “There is some crying and some laughing. Although it can be heavy, we usually end on a positive note.”

At right, Joe is pictured received his volunteer appreciation gift in 2020 when in-person groups were suspended due to COVID-19.


Cambria Teen Room Volunteer Madison Follansbee

“I am there to help the teens facilitate connections with each other, explains Teen Room volunteer Madison Follansbee. “They’re often from different schools, and it becomes a really safe space for them to share.”

Having lost her mom as a child and attended a children’s support group in Georgia where she grew up, she quickly connected with the Healing Patch’s mission after meeting Healing Patch Coordinator Melody Ray in 2021 at the coffee shop where she worked. 

“Melody stopped in for a coffee before she went to an in-school group at a nearby school, and we just started talking,” Follansbee shared. “It resonated with me. It was a great opportunity for me to give back for the support I received as a child.”

In preparing for group nights, she reviews the binder of possible activities and selects one based on previous conversations or something that she thinks would be beneficial for the group. The teens gather with all participants for an opening circle before breaking out into their age-specific group, where they are a given an opportunity to journal briefly as a way to both process emotions and have something to look back on. Follansbee then leads the group with the selected activity to serve as a discussion starter related to loss and grief. 

“Our participants are at a place of self-awareness and reflection, and I see so much growth in them as they feel safe to share, have their feelings validated and grow in community,” she shares. “The weight of the grief isn’t lost on me, but there are more beautiful, connecting moments than sad ones. The scale tips so much toward connection, clarity and people feeling safe to share.”

At right, Madison is pictured with a cake her Healing Patch volunteer team got to celebrate her upcoming wedding last summer.


Healing Patch Volunteer Qualities 

Ideal Healing Patch volunteers may be identified by several defining qualities, such as the ability to be emotionally present for those who are grieving, actively listen to provide support and empathy with understanding that grief cannot be “fixed” and demonstrate compassion for people from diverse backgrounds. 

“Volunteers are truly the heart of the Healing Patch program,” says Shalen Steinbugl, Healing Patch volunteer coordinator and grief specialist. “They provide kindness, compassion and stability for those whose lives may feel so unfamiliar and out of their control. We are fortunate at the Healing Patch to have such a close-knit group of caring individuals who go out of their way to make sure families feel safe and supported.” 

New volunteers must have clearances completed and participate in training during the summer to equip them before group sessions begin in September. Group nights take place two evenings a month from September to May (16 evenings total).


A Rewarding and Life-Giving Experience 

Healing Patch volunteers often share that they get more from the experience than they give. Bilka and Follansbee have seen how their lives have been enriched as part of the Healing Patch family. 

“I enjoy being an instrument in helping someone deal with their grief,” shares Bilka. “The people I meet through the Healing Patch are an inspiration to me, and I am more grateful in my life. It’s a very rewarding, fulfilling and challenging experience.” 

“I love the Healing Patch,” Follansbee says. “I feel like I’m learning more about grief than the teens are. They teach me every session and shape my perspective. It always feels like time given, not taken away. It’s a great community.”


For More Information 

Contact Steinbugl at 814-947-7140 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Interested individuals can complete a volunteer application online.


About the Healing Patch

The Healing Patch Children’s Grief Program began in 2006 as a free peer support program for children and their families who have suffered the loss of a loved one, such as a parent, sibling, grandparent, or close family member. Since that time, the program has expanded to support children through in-school services, grief resources and other community services. Sharing memories and experiences allows grieving children and families to discover that what they are going through is normal and that hope and healing are possible. The Healing Patch is a free service to the community and relies on individual and community donations, grants and fundraising events for support. To learn more, call 1-800-445-6262 or visit homenursingagency.com.



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