Children were the love of Dennis Watson’s life.
When Watson died unexpectedly at the age of 52 in April 2021 in Collingwood, the family chose to host a celebration of life at a later date due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time.
As a part of the celebration, it was not only important to recognize his life but to take the opportunity to make it a memorial fundraiser to support a cause that was most meaningful to the Watson family.
The family chose the VON Kids’ Circle Program, a bereavement program that supports children and teens who have experienced a significant loss in their life.
Dennis’ children Alex and Sydnie Watson were well aware of the Kids’ Circle Program and knew it would be the perfect choice to celebrate his life and also honour the pride their father had being raised in the Chatham-Kent area.
The Watson family – parents Carole and Graham, daughter Karrie and her husband Mike Szabo – hosted a golf tournament and dinner at the Links of Kent along with a sports memorabilia auction to launch The Dennis Difference Memorial Fund in support of the Kids’ Circle Program.
The Dennis Difference raised $25,000 for the program in memory of Watson, a business executive for 31 years in sporting goods, including vice-president of sales and marketing for Reebok Canada, and distribution supply at Unisource Inc. and Veritiv Canada.
The 140 guests for the golf tournament and dinner included many of Watson’s former work associates from across Canada and the United States as well as family friends.
His mother Carole, retired nurse manager at the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, has been a dedicated volunteer to the Kids’ Circle Program for the past six years since moving back to Chatham.
“Carole is always here to assist in anyway possible,” said Erin Crow, program director of the VON Kids’ Circle Program.
“She is adored by the children, her dedication and knowledge is much appreciated and needed to ensure the children are receiving the best support possible. “I often ask her advice as she has many creative activity suggestions to contribute,” Crow said.
Graham’s sister Marylu provides baked goods for the program as a part of the Watson family’s overall effort to give back.
The Dennis Difference donation will cover the shortfall in funding for the program to provide additional support for summer camp as well as its music, art, drama and exercise therapy sessions.
The summer camp is one of the highlights of the year for the children as they take part in traditional camp activities and cap each night with a memorial campfire.
“Each child gets a light-up butterfly and we talk about their loved ones around the fire,” Crow said. “Seeing them just being kids with each other, with friends who understand them in a way that other kids may not, is special.”
Kids’ Circle, which has been around for about 20 years, is housed in the non-profit ‘425’ building on McNaughton Avenue West with a large meeting room for the group sessions and activities as well as a lounge area for families.
The program currently has 115 kids from across Chatham-Kent in its individual and group counselling programs.
The group sessions are held bi-weekly as the program has grown well beyond pre-COVID participation levels.
Crow said the majority of the children are referred to the program by the school boards in Chatham-Kent.
“They are aware of specific losses their students have experience and refer them to us,” Crow said.
Once she gets a referral, Crow meets with a parent or guardian to discuss the program and then with the child to determine whether one-on-one counselling is required or if group sessions would be more helpful.
“Frequently the children have a loss that’s more complicated and choose to share their thoughts and concerns in a safe and more comfortable environment,” Crow said.
She said most children start out with one one-on-one sessions and then move right into group sessions.
There is no ‘end date’ as kids can stay in the program for as long as they feel necessary.
“VON recognizes that grieving does end, it’s a lifelong process,” Crow said.
One of the saddest factors in the healing process is bullying these children sometime encounter.
“Kids relay that they are being bullied at school where negative things are said about their loss, which is obviously very upsetting to them,” Crow said.
She said when the children are with their friends at Kids’ Circle, they know they’re to going to be supported by each other.
For more information on the VON Kids’ Circle Program, visit www.von.ca/en/von-care/kids-circle