DECATUR - No one told Pam Neeley what happened to a beloved aunt who died when she was 5.

"She was the only one who ever spent time alone with me," she said. "One day she was there, and the next she was gone.

"After that, I afraid to get close to people because I didn't want to lose them."

Neeley, a legal secretary at Brown, Hawkins and Basola, is among about a dozen people attending two days of free training Tuesday and today to be a volunteer at a new Child Bereavement Center set to open this fall at Kids N Fitness North in Forsyth.

The concept, coming to the Decatur area thanks to the Mental Health Association of Macon County, originated at the Dougy Center in Portland, Ore., where children and young adults can share their grief experiences in peer support groups facilitated by trained volunteers.

Sherri Arnold, executive director of the association, told the group Tuesday the center will complete the organization's continuum of services, which includes crisis planning and interventions in schools after a tragedy occurs.

Jean Moore, executive director of the Macon County Child Advocacy Center and a member of the association's board, said the service is even more necessary now that schools no longer have student assistance counselors. A former student assistance counselor, Moore said students would come to her and say they couldn't talk about their grief anywhere else.

Other attendees include board members Mark Bridge, Carolynn DeVore, Gloria Marshall, Sandy Schultz and Pattie Smith-Phillips, along with Mary Clare Cummins, a part-time counselor; Diane Friend, retired executive director of Decatur Day Care Center; Becky Hugo, peer educator coordinator at Planned Parenthood; Shannon Nail, a manager in Archer Daniels Midland Co.'s credit department; and Betsy Tietz, a retired special education teacher.

Donna Schuurman, executive director of the Dougy Center and leader of the training, said research has shown that unaddressed loss can cause people to develop depression or anxiety, engage in substance abuse or even kill themselves.

"In the 24 years I've been at the center, I've never heard one young person say, 'I'm glad I was lied to.'" Schuurman said. "When we say we're trying to protect children, we're really protecting ourselves."

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