“We’ve been in it nine years and four months,” says Neal Younger, Munjor, when asked how long he and his wife, Carolyn, have belonged to Healing Hearts.

A support group in Hays for families who have lost a child, it meets the second Thursday of every month at The Hadley Center, 205 E. Seventh.

The Youngers started going after losing their 16-year-old son Cody, who died in a car accident with his girlfriend Jordy Claiborn. It wasn’t easy going. Were they afraid?

“Oh my gosh, yes.” Younger says. “We were terrified. A tragic accident had just happened. We didn’t know if we could talk about it in front of people. And we didn’t want people to feel sorry for us.”

Now they are helping others.

“The ones who have been in the group longer can help a new person coming in,” he said, and fear is often part of the equation. “They’re afraid to show their grief in front of everybody, or they’re just scared.”

Monday evening the nonprofit organization that hosts Healing Hearts, the Center for Life Experience Inc., asked for a donation from the Ellis County Commission at its regular meeting in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.

Besides Healing Hearts, the 18-year-old Center sponsors three other grief support groups: one for people who have lost an adult in their life, one for families who have lost someone to suicide, and an annual weekend retreat for kids who have lost a significant person in their life.

The Center until recently was under the nonprofit umbrella of the First Presbyterian Church of Hays. Now it’s starting its first year as a stand-alone non-profit, and is seeking donations throughout the community, said Dawn Gabel, a professional fundraiser who recently joined the Center’s board of directors. The Center has done an outstanding job of planning ahead for their independent nonprofit status, Gabel said.

“We are putting together a strategic fundraising plan,” Gabel told the commissioners. “They’ve done a good job, they are three-quarters of the way or better to meeting their first-year budget.”

The organization is a much-needed resource in northwest Kansas for people struggling with grief, she said, but it needs help to stand on its own two feet now.

“They’ve been providing it out of the goodness of their hearts for a couple of decades,” she said. “They are pretty strong right now, but they could use your help.”

The Center’s annual budget is $56,800, said Younger, also on the board of directors. He’s hoping the Ellis County Commission will donate 10 percent of their budget, or $5,680, but said they’ll take whatever they can get.

So far, the organization has received both large and small donations from merchants in Hays, but the volunteers continue to seek support from others as well, Younger said.

Fort Hays has been a tremendous supporter, he said, including students who come to the meetings. Jackie Creamer’s The Dance Studio, 1501 Main St., allows the group to host a Christmas ceremony with a tree with more than 200 ornaments, each one honoring a lost spouse or child. Healing Hearts also places pinwheels in the city of Hays cemetery on the graves of children who have died.

“I hope we’re not too late for ’19, anything would be appreciated, and we’d like to get on the agenda for 2020,” Younger told the commissioners.

The organization serves about 1,000 people.

“It keeps growing,” Younger said. “It seems like every meeting, Healing Hearts the group just continues to grow, sometimes there might be two or three additional people.”

June 10 is the official date for outside agencies to be considered for money from the county budget, said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.

County Commissioner Butch Schlyer asked if the group provides counseling.

“It is not individual counseling,” said Ann Leiker, executive director of the organization and a social worker who’s been with the Center since it started.

Leiker said the organization’s groups are a way for people in the community to support each other, which complements professional therapy and counseling.

“The 1,000 people we serve each year are the people who come to the groups and to the public education sessions,” she said. “One of the underlying main things that we do is to bring people together, face-to-face to support each other in this day and age, and they appreciate it and they come consistently.”

Commissioner Dustin Roths said he’d like to do further research, while Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst said there wouldn’t be any immediate action.

“It’s something we’ll have to discuss,” Haselhorst said. “We won’t give you a decision tonight. Give us a couple of weeks and we can talk about it from there.”

A briefing paper from the organization said the Center shares in leading the Hays affiliate of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which provides a help-line, resource room with books and educational information and materials, as well as support for people with mental illness and their families and caregivers.

Supporting the Center helps relieve some of the challenges that accompany a tragic loss, the organization says. Those include: lengthy work absences or job loss; a drop in a family’s income; physical and mental illnesses due to trauma; absenteeism from school; and families leaving the community.

The retreat for kids is only in its third year, but it’s been a big success so far with children ages 7 to 12 years old.

“I wish when we’d lost our son there’d been something like that for our daughter,” Younger said. “She couldn’t handle it. They were very close to each other.”

Each year, the commission approves funding of about $1 million to outside agencies, said Smith-Hanes. On Monday the commissioners formalized with an agreement their annual $240,000 payment to Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas, 2703 Hall St., which is included in the 2019 budget.

Smith-Hanes also presented a schedule for the 2020 budget that starts the process earlier than in the past, to have more time to face the tough budget challenges that are expected.

Smith-Hanes will present the financial forecast on Feb. 11. Initial operating budget requests will be presented to the Commission on March 18.

“I think the schedule looks real good,” Schlyer said. “I don’t know that there’s going to be a lot of things in department budgets that can actually be cut without hitting personnel services. I think it’s pretty much bare bones in every department, so that’s kind of my starting point with this whole issue. We can’t hardly go down any more.”

Haselhorst, who’s been through the budget process for several years now, said department heads in recent years have done a good job of cutting any excess and working with what they have.

Smith-Hanes agreed with Schlyer, saying the commissioners face questions around funding for staff, “however that looks, whether that is reductions in numbers of staff, or if we do something around benefits.”

“Staff does make up over 62 percent of the budget and it’s really hard at this point to make any meaningful changes at this point without affecting staff in some fashion,” he said. “Obviously the sooner we get that decision made the more chance we have to roll that out in a less painful way.”