Friends of the Center for Grieving Children left last week’s Love Really Counts Auction and Dinner Gala knowing they had raised a record-breaking $177,000 to support programs that help local people deal with some of life’s most heartbreaking losses.

“This was the most the center has ever raised at any event,” said special events manager Lianna Doane. “It’s so important to have a forum to share our stories. When you drive by the center on Forest Avenue, not everyone knows what it is all about. It is a hidden gem.”

More than 500 people attended the four-hour event at Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland, donating $23,800 in child sponsorships, not to mention the silent and live auctions.

“Tonight is a celebration of the healing power of love,” said speaker Cindy Williams, a news anchor for WCSH6. “Grief is a journey. It really is a process.”

“We’re just so grateful for everything the Center for Grieving Children has done for us,” said Liz Mott, whose husband passed away in 2009. There was no life insurance, and Liz had been a stay-at-home mom homeschooling Emily, Julie and Andrew, who were 11, 6 and 5 at the time. Within a few months, Liz was evicted and had moved her family in with her parents in Wells.

“I knew I wasn’t going to let this situation define me negatively, and the center has been a large part of that,” Liz said at the gala.

Her parents’ house was cramped, but the property had plenty of land for farming. Working with what she had, Liz started an organic garden and baked up a storm, starting Sunnyfield Farm & Baking Co. Last year, the children went on Kickstarter.com and asked for financial support to help their mom grow her business. With 90 backers and more than $6,000 coming in from that thoughtful appeal, Liz has relocated to a commercial kitchen and now sells her well-known biscotti at outlets all over southern Maine.

Every step of the way, the center has been there for each member of the Mott family with age-specific grieving groups, friendship, and encouragement. The children – including eldest daughter Emily, who couldn’t attend because she was traveling for a winter guard competition – are thriving. And Liz, newly engaged, was introducing fiancé Derek Chase to friends from the center.

More than 1,000 people have called the center in the past year, needing someone to listen, answer their questions, or just hear their grief. A caller may be a grieving widow concerned about her children’s emotional well-being; a father who lost his daughter and doesn’t know how to carry on; or a woman who is grieving the loss of her son while worrying about her fatherless grandson.

“It’s one of those places that affects so many different people, and you know it makes a difference,” said board member Melissa Smith of Falmouth. “It matters.”

Pamela Szalajeski of Portland is “still processing” the unexpected death of her adult son Edmund five years ago.

She is involved with a parent group at the center, brings her grandson Zach for support, and volunteers with middle-school students who have a critically ill parent.

“One child said to me, ‘I choose to be happy because if I choose another word, something might go wrong,’” Szalajeski said. “Isn’t that sad? When they come to the center, it’s their one hour to be who they are and to just be a child.”

Nanny Halle Jandreau, of Standish, found the center’s programs helpful years ago when she was a grieving child. “It gives you a place to go where everybody understands what you’re going through,” she said.

Carolyn Dipierro of Boston was five months pregnant when she lost her husband, Dan, to brain cancer. She found support through bereavement programs in Boston – at Jeff’s Place and The Children’s Room – for herself and her daughter Stella, who is now 5 years old.

After seeing how much bereavement support groups meant to Dipierro, her brother, Kevin Hunt of Falmouth, now serves on the board at the Center for Grieving Children.

As board members, group facilitators, and event workers, center volunteers give more than 20,000 hours a year of service. Volunteers work in both Portland and Sanford, facilitating bereavement peer groups, answering phones, and working in partnership with the Portland Public Schools to serve students who have resettled in Maine from countries that have experienced war and genocide.

“I know a family that has been through loss,” said Brandy Egan, a Realtor from Old Orchard Beach whose boyfriend’s dad and some family friends have passed away in recent months. “I can’t wait to volunteer.”

More information is available at www.cgcmaine.org.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer who lives in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

amyedits@aol.com