A Population of Heartbreak

By: Cori Walls, International Baccalaureate film & Digital Video Production teacher for Palm Beach County School District in Delray Beach, FL

Why is it that so many films have a backstory of a child losing a parent? Or that many superheroes are vindicating the death of their parents? This is where art is the reality for far too many children across our country. The challenge lies in how to offer support to these grieving children.  

Pre-Covid, statistics showed that 1/15 children in the United States have a parent die before the age of 18. Now, according to an October 2021 article from the National Institute of Health, “More than 140,000 U.S. children lost a primary or secondary caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic”, the latest numbers show that ¼ of Covid deaths are a child losing a parent. In an October 2013 NPR article, children who suffer from the death of a parent often follow one of two roads—rebellion, crime, and self-harm or independence, grit, and determination to succeed. The latter is what I want to see in my students and has been part of the reason I have worked hard to help them.

My other motivation is three months into my mother’s pregnancy, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Eight months after I was born, he died at the age of 30.  Growing up, I did not know any other classmates who were coping with the death of a parent. Growing up fatherless is the reality that they are gone forever, and you will never have a conversation with your parent again—a loss few truly understand.  

After making a career change from being a television news reporter to a Career and Technical Education Television Production and Film teacher, I learned in my first-year teaching, there were a handful of students whose parents had died, and each year following I met more. However, three years ago, I had 10 students on my roster who had one or both parents pass away. This is when I knew I had to do something. I convinced my then-Principal to allow me to start an after-school program to bring together the students who were coping with the death of a parent or caregiver. “Steve’s Club”, created in my father’s name, is a safe, private space for students who have lost a parent, caregiver, or sibling to meet each other and know they are not alone. To provide emotional and academic support, Steve’s Club partners with several organizations to provide grief and coping skills support, training for teachers and staff on how to support grieving students, ED’s TRIO program assists students with college readiness and applications, and local companies have offered opportunities for students to have career and college exposure. 

However, starting Steve’s Club had a huge roadblock. I had no systematic way to identify which students had experienced this loss. Every student that I invite to Steve’s Club is referred by word of mouth from teachers, school counselors, or students themselves. 

The first year Steve’s Club identified 34 students on campus who had a parent or caregiver die. In 2020, when COVID-19 rocked our country, communities, and schools, 67 students were identified and nearly half showed up for virtual meetings. This year, we are back face to face with students and three high schools in Palm Beach County School District are hosting Steve’s Club, servicing more than 100 students. Next year, more than 10 schools, elementary, middle, and high schools plan to offer Steve’s Club on their campus. If we are to find beauty within death, it is that death does not discriminate. It affects students from all backgrounds and through their grief they forge supportive relationships. Steve’s Club creates an environment for the students to persevere and look forward to a successful future, while respecting their past and their loved one they will always miss.  

Cori Walls is an International Baccalaureate film & Digital Video Production teacher for Palm Beach County School District in Delray Beach, Florida. As a teacher of 8 years and former television news reporter, Walls has founded and sponsors “Steve’s Club”, an after school group supporting students who have lost a parent, caregiver, or sibling. For her work in bringing attention to grieving students, Walls was honored with the 2021 FEA Human & Civil Rights Award and is nominated for the 2022 NEA Martin Luther King Memorial Human & Civil Rights Award. Walls is an active member of the CTA Human & Civil Rights Committee & the FEA Racial Inequities Taskforce. 

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