What Happened to the Compassion in The Compassionate Friends?
The Compassionate Friends National office has grown from a grass roots kitchen table idea to a bureaucratic ego driven top heavy Non-Profit that is simply not sustainable in the new Millennium as it is run today. The top will fall if the foundation cannot support it. It is falling. The real sustainable foundation of The Compassionate Friends was started over 50 years ago by a weary band of the broken hearted; beggars sharing bread at the kitchen table of broken dreams. 50 years ago, they created a dream, a good one and together they created what TCF has become today and all they said was; we need not walk alone.
So, what has changed in 50 years? From 1969 to 2019? Too much to list right? We have cellular phones and the internet to problem solve for us 24/7/365. Who sits at the kitchen table anymore? There is more on-line chapter bereavement support websites, forums, groups, foundations, and chat rooms that bereaved can access easily and may find themselves gravitating to similar circumstance groups or groups with similar ideologies on faith, continuing connections, legacy building, and networking for survival etc. Many chapters are experiencing less and less attendance every year, and some chapters closing with lack of new volunteers to replace existing leaders, and steering team members, some just plain tired, too old, or too busy to keep up with huge demands that it takes to run a successful chapter.
When chapter groups were formed it was akin to real live internet for grievers, a safety net with breathing human beings like AA or ALANON, a group who had each other on a regular basis and it had results, great results, people found sustainable healing by going to a place and feel embraced. For some it was not accessible which was a problem which exists to this day. But now with the internet geographical logistics is not a problem and we don’t have to set up cold hard folding chairs in a drafty basement and tell our story every month; a crap shoot if I would be better or feel worse. When you start looking for an excuse not to go it is time to reassess why you go.
When I worked at the Catholic church for almost 20 years, I saw the many devoted followers who attending mass every day. I saw the many who came every Sunday and every single Holy Day or holiday celebration/devotion. I saw the once- a -month Sunday mass goers who usually left the church walking back from communion, my dad called them pew warmers. Then there were the folks who my dad called the Chreasters who only attended mass on Christmas and Easter.
I have been with The Compassionate friends for almost as long and I see the same thing. We have the devoted followers who show up every meeting for years, every candle lighting, balloon release, special event or fund raiser, as well as every national conference since the child in their life died. There are those who show up every couple of months or so and maybe some special events. There are those who only come just to the candle lighting every year. Many who go to just the Candle lighting and the National Conference only but do so religiously. People do what works for them, we have choices.
We are at a crossroads of sorts with The Compassionate Friends. We can no longer be effective with the old top-heavy model of a Non-Profit. The cost and use of a brick and mortar office building with paid salaries, benefits, BOD expenses and office operating close to 1.5 million a year is just not sustainable, it surely is not the best bang for our buck with that amount being close to the amount the TCF Foundation endowment provides to the national office every year.
Conferences are becoming less affordable as costs continuing to rise and passed on to attendees and what once was a fundraiser is barely breaking even to operate. It has gotten so large its intimidating to many newly bereaved. Too many work shop choices, early bereaved have difficulty with a restaurant menu much less 125 workshops to choose from. Less is more. Provide meaningful useful tools for all attendees. Welcome diversity with efficiency but not confusion and lugubrious attempts to hit all form of loss and social strata. Provide more family mentoring for the younger siblings whose recognition is lost among the older siblings who are now young adults. I did not attend many sibling functions because of my presentations with parental loss. It has grown so much I would suggest a separate conference just for teen and young adult sibs and a broader focus on the younger kids lost in the shuffle.
TCF has to accommodate to the times not just with the technology it brings, but a new strategy for serving our baby boomers and our millennials into the future or I fear all will be lost. We see it and feel it now. Give the control back to the membership at the local level. Use foundation money to supply programs, information and strategies for more local chapter control and regional conferences with large volunteer base. Reduce the size with two bi coastal annual events or every other year. The annual conference was the organizations biggest fundraiser, now it is lucky to break even, plus the trickle down cost increase to the attendees.
If we do not accommodate to the times, people will find help elsewhere, ultimately our goal is to provide help and healing, so that is okay wherever they find it. I see TCF as a first responder and a catch and release program; be there in need, provide the tools, lend an ear and a comforting word and release them; they can choose to come back or bring the tools with them. Our biggest onus is to be available as a hostile for their soul not a permanent residence for their brokenness.
When in Amsterdam this February of 2019 I had what I call a click in my stargate, an epiphany drawn from immersion into something that pulls you in. Seeing the Van Gogh Museum as a portrait artist took me by surprise, seeing such transparency Vincent portrayed in his different self-portraits I could almost hear his story as I do when I stare into the faces of the bereaved, I hear their story not so much in words but from the countenance of their face and being in their space.
Secondly, I visited the Dutch Resistance Museum, dedicated to those Dutch Nationals and others who resisted the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. Over and over three words they were faced with every day was flashed before our eyes. Comply, Collaborate, Resist. Comply to get by, collaborate if you agree, resist if you do not. Even the best of good-hearted people will do what they need to do to survive. We do not know what we would have done if we were in their wooden shoes. They were forced by gunpoint to have to make a decision and not an easy one.
In our grief and in major life decisions we are faced with the same hard questions. Comply by our level of tolerance, compromise, or fear. Collaborate by our level of belief in a process that provides relief, or just comply from the fear of punishment/ridicule for non-collaboration. We can also resist to an unfair immoral mandate imposed by others. Silence is not an option out; it is compliant. The only other choice is removal. Remove yourself or be removed if not compliant. Taking the high road, the low road or the road less traveled we need to move forward, but we need not walk alone. You can crush one’s bones, crush one’s spirit, brain wash one’s mind, but our soul still makes the decision to comply, collaborate, resist or remove. We become our choice, shine by example or be swallowed by darkness.
My dear Compassionate Friends,
I feel I must make a public statement, not to would be collaboration. The removal of Debbie Rambis from her position as Executive Director in the manner in which it was done is shameless, unprofessional and against everything that compassion represents. Unless she embezzled funds or intentionally caused harm to someone, any issue could be resolved without sudden termination especially less than 6 months before the national conference.
Possibly what the BOD did was within their legal rights as a nonprofit in Illinois but certainly not how we would treat the bereaved morally.
Almost 20 years ago I discovered The Compassionate Friends; I was ten years old as a bereaved dad still discovering myself in this dark and scary world of the grief journey for my son. I wrote a book to help bereaved parents like myself and I applied to conduct a workshop to talk about hope. I was accepted and the rest is history, albeit a colorful one, it brought us to this day of reckoning I never could never have foreseen.
When I did my first workshop “A journey Through Grief” I spoke of a sign I received from my son with the word DAD on a cornstalk. Workshop attendees were extremely animated in their response and the concept of a workshop on signs was born and I planned one for the next conference. I was turned down by the ED for 3 years running because of its “woo woo” nature. We finally compromised on a title “Whispers of Love” but was admonished not speak of mediums or psychics and it opened the door for the topic of continuing connection to this day. The ED was Pat L and we were not the best of friends as I challenged her quite a bit, but I respected her role as ED. She too was removed from her position in a shameless manner.
A new management model was created when Pat was dethroned and a 50/50 leadership role was installed with a new Executive Director Alan P. as the friendly face of TCF and a newly created behind the scenes leadership role COO position with Lisa C. Both were given salaries over $100,000 annually with the aid of five full time staff positions.
A new era that was created that did not last long nor did it work well or was it cost effective and proved to be poor fiduciary responsibly of organizations funds and Lisa was canned. Alan P. left the position a year or so later and Debbie R. was hired to clean up the mess. In doing so discovered much inefficiency that needed to be addressed and must have uncovered more than she bargained fore and was canned.
The Oakbrook office has been dysfunctional for many years and has not served its members with the services they need, want and require. BOD members come and go, Board Presidents come and go, EDs are hired and fired. Some RCs and chapter leaders are still in the trenches for over 20 years doing what they love and to honor the child in their life who died. They want to serve the bereaved regardless of the actions of a dysfunctional executive branch and will continue to do so while over a million dollars a year comes from the TCF foundation to support a failing model of leadership and the board games continue.
I have served TCF and its members faithfully for almost 20 years. I was urged to be on the BOD for many years, and I finally agreed and was voted in. I went to my first BOD meeting which was at the conference and found out that not only was I supposed to do active fund raising but was expected to donate a large contribution every year as a board member and mandatory travel for quarterly meetings was expected. I was willing to do that but when the existing BOD created a new policy that prevented me from taking any funds from any chapter while serving on the BOD I was forced to resign. I provide a service and accept donations for that service just as Alan P. has done for years even when he was ED he continued to do so.
Alan and I worked together closely during the years he was ED, I may have seen or heard too much which only validated more something was rotten in Denmark. BOD members had alliances and subversive agendas for control of the organization but lost sight of its inherent goal of puddle sitting with the broken hearted. For many reasons I will not elucidate here Alan and I no longer work together or will we in the future. We served thousands upon thousands of bereaved together and I have no regrets but I cannot collaborate where our hearts differ and we have moved on.
I have devoted every summer for over 17 years to attend National Conferences of TCF, BPUSA, TAPS and other grief organizations using all my vacation time from a full time job to do so, all at my own expense. My grandchildren are close to the age my son was when he died. I will not miss out on any summertime activities with them, I am retired and living the dream to be the best grandpa I can be.
I will continue to reach out to the bereaved, travel to chapters if they want to bring me in to do a workshop and I will work with any organization that serves the bereaved as long as it can fit into the calendar of prioritized events with my family.
If TCF has helped you survive, please help them survive to continue to served the bereaved as they have for 50 years write to the BOD, contact your chapter leader, your RC , your friend you may know on the board and ask for full disclosure of the this shameful, irrational act that has hurt a family only 8 years out on their journey so badly they may never recover. I would hope they will issue a formal apology and get their act together to do the right thing for Debbie and her family and to save the conference from ruin. So many have planned to go, and many are backing out because off this debacle. Contact the national office with your heart and words. They need new board members, with elections soon, if you want to make a difference and want to be on the board, if you have the wherewith all to serve and can help the organization rise from its fall from grace please do so. TCF is in trouble and the newly bereaved more confused than ever. It’s not too late. Silence is compliance.
Peace, love and light