January 25, 2013

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

‘God is there’: Teacher draws on her faith as she volunteers to help grieving children

Bishop Chatard High School teacher Stephanie Theis shares a fun moment with senior Maggie McNelis and other students during a biology class. Besides teaching and coaching at the Indianapolis North Deanery interparochial school, Theis also volunteers at Brooke’s Place, an organization that provides support and services to grieving children and their families. (Photo by Michael Sahm)

Bishop Chatard High School teacher Stephanie Theis shares a fun moment with senior Maggie McNelis and other students during a biology class. Besides teaching and coaching at the Indianapolis North Deanery interparochial school, Theis also volunteers at Brooke’s Place, an organization that provides support and services to grieving children and their families. (Photo by Michael Sahm)

By John Shaughnessy

The moment—and the child—needed someone who would understand, not overreact.

Stephanie Theis watched as the 10-year-old boy ran down the hall, wildly letting out all his energy and emotion.

When the boy reached where Theis stood, he stopped, looked at her and said, “I’m really not like this at home.”

Theis nodded and smiled at him, processing everything she knew about the boy. His father had died, his mother was frequently busy at work, and he often had to take care of his siblings as the oldest of four children.

“He was kind of thanking me for letting him get all that emotion out without stopping him,” Theis recalls. “Sometimes, they just need a safe place to get all that emotion out.”

That safe place for the 10-year-old boy is Brooke’s Place, a non-profit organization in Indianapolis that provides support and services to grieving children and their families.

It’s also the place where Theis—a science teacher and coach at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis—has volunteered nearly every Thursday evening for four hours during the past nine years. Her commitment and her concern for children led her to be chosen for Brooke’s Place’s Purple Heart Award for outstanding volunteerism in 2012.

“Stephanie goes above and beyond what is required of a volunteer,” says Emily Ayres, supervisor of volunteer services and support group coordinator for Brooke’s Place. “Her willingness to be with the kids and allow them to grieve in the way they need to is a big part of what she does. She cares so much about the kids and our organization.”

Theis appreciates the impact that the organization makes on children and teenagers as they try to deal with the loss of someone they love.

“It’s something I believe in,” says Theis, who has been a teacher for 13 years. “I believe it’s necessary to make a safe place for them. A lot of times, kids just want to remember and share their memories—‘This is what my dad used to do for me.’ It’s sad in some ways, but it’s also about hope. My belief is that God is there in those memories.”

Her care for the children at Brooke’s Place has also had a major impact on the way that she teaches and coaches students at Bishop Chatard.

“It has changed me,” says Theis, who has a master’s degree in school counseling from Butler University in Indianapolis. “You go into counseling thinking you’re going to solve problems or fix things. Even teachers have that mindset. It took me a while to just be present to them.

“It has made me realize that every person has their own story. That helps me when I’m teaching and coaching. I’m more aware that all the kids have their own experience. God made us who we are. I’ve learned to try to help people be who they are, and accept them for who they are.”

The combination of teaching, coaching and volunteering makes for a busy schedule for Theis, especially on Thursdays.

She’s at school by 7:15 in the morning, ready for a full day of teaching classes that include Advanced Placement Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Honors Biology for freshmen. She’s also the moderator of the school’s Brain Game team. After school, she coaches cross country and track until about 5 p.m. Then she heads to Brooke’s Place for four hours.

Sometimes, she works with children ages 10 to 12. Other times, she’s helping teenagers.

“They can come as long as they want,” says Theis, who is 36. “We realize that everyone’s grief is different. I like seeing the connections the kids have with each other, and seeing them share those thoughts they haven’t shared before.”

Her faith guides her in her work with the children and the teens.

“My personal faith is a big part of why I do this,” she says. “I believe that God is with us in our grief journey. He gives us gifts within ourselves to grieve. He gives us our memories. I believe that God is with us through all our experiences.” †

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