Losing a parent is devastating, especially for children, who often have a difficult time understanding death and the lasting effect it may have in their life. This was made clear one day to Gail Rink, a social worker for Hospice Santa Barbara, when she was talking with a child whose father had died. The boy asked her if he’d ever be normal again; that question became the impetus for Rink to form I Have a Friend, a Hospice program that assists children who have lost a family member to terminal illness by pairing them with mentors who have been through a similar experience.

“Our mentors play a key role in providing these children with the help they need to learn that they can feel happy and normal again,” said Joy Janssen, Children and Family Services program manager at Hospice, in a written statement.

Mentors are volunteers who have “experienced the death of a child or parent when they were a child,” according to Janssen. These volunteers, who go through a six-week training program and a background screening in order to become a mentor, not only lend a sympathetic ear to the child, but also take them on outings to places such as the Zoo, the Natural History Museum, the beach, movies, and plays. Mentors usually stay with their child for an average of three years. “It all depends on the child’s needs,” said Janssen. The longest that mentors have stayed with their child is five years.”

Started in 2002, the I Have a Friend program usually has two training sessions per year, in spring and fall. “This year, because of financial difficulties, we only have one training program,” said Janssen.

In an effort to raise funds for the cash-strapped program, the Association of Realtors is sponsoring its annual casino night, Surfin’ Santa Barbara, with all proceeds going to I Have a Friend. Now in its 22nd year, the Hawaiian-themed event includes gaming tables, raffle prizes, dinner by Cliff’s & Co., drinks, dancing, and a deejay. There will also be a live auction for items such as a one-week stay on the French Riviera, surfing lessons, a Firewire surfboard, and a painting by S.B. artist Mary Heebner.

Surfin’ Santa Barbara takes place Friday, April 24, 6-11 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (113 Harbor Way). Tickets are $50 each and include dinner and Lucky Bucks for the casino. For tickets, call 884-8604 or email abarker@sbaor.com. To become an I Have a Friend mentor, call 563-8820 or visit hospiceofsantabarbara.org


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