The Center for Grieving Children’s annual Love Gala drew nearly 700 supporters for a dinner and auction Feb. 1 that raised a record-breaking $350,000.

“This is an unbelievable scene,” said Executive Director Anne Heros, looking out at a sea of tables at Thompson Point’s Brick South. The support is critical for the center, which receives no state or federal funding and provides free weekly group sessions for all ages.

“It’s a family model where the family can come at the same time and each access their own peer support group,” Heros said. “I like to call it one-stop shopping.”

One in 13 children in Maine will lose a parent or sibling before reaching adulthood. The top causes are cancer, suicide and opioids.

“Everyone has suffered a loss in one way or another,” said volunteer Carol Walsh of Windham. “And the Center does an excellent job helping people be able to express the grief they’re going through.”

Like many of the center’s 300 volunteers, Pam Szalajeski of Portland started as a client – after losing her adult son, Eddie, a decade ago.

“We started therapy there, and then it was really important for us to give back,” Szalajeski said, adding that her husband, Edmund, is a group facilitator. “It’s like a second job, a meaningful second job.”

“My father passed away when I was 7,” said volunteer Emily Kidd of Old Orchard Beach. “My mom, brother and I went to the center. Even though I was very young, it had a significant impact on me. And looking back, I can see how much it helped my mom to take away some of that burden during that time of grief.”

Board President Peter Herzog of Scarborough was drawn to the center as a volunteer because his wife, Julia, had lost her father when she was 14. But he’d never experienced that sort of grief himself until more recently.

“A year ago, on Dec. 26, we got a call that my dad dropped dead that morning,” Herzog said. “Being an only child, he was my best friend, and this knocked me off my feet. Now I understand how complex and unpredictable grief is.”

These stories tug at the heartstrings. But with dinner catered by Blue Elephant, live music by The Middle Men and guests bidding thousands of dollars for vacations, tickets to a taping of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and a football autographed by Tom Brady, the annual gala is more about love than loss.

“This is our biggest fundraiser of the year, so it’s imperative that we have a great night,” said Sara Asch, bereavement services and outreach coordinator. “And we get to dress up and have a good time.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

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