Bill took a sabbatical to study death and, in 1977, founded the St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society, Inc. This was renamed in 1979 as the St. Francis Center. Bill Wendt was a pioneer, talking about death and dying long before it was acceptable, urging the community to take care of the grieving.
Drawn by Bill’s vision and energy, a strong corps of volunteers came together to offer support to people who are dying. Over the years, the organization developed into a full service, staffed, nonprofit organization and emerged as the area’s premier social service agency supporting people with end-stage disease and those left in bereavement. In 1999, the organization changed its name to the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, a name that both reflects our mission and honors our founder. We remain faithful to Bill’s vision that “no one should have to grieve alone.”
Bill died on July 8, 2001, at the age of 81.
History of the Wendt Center
The evolution of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing is a wonderful story, one that — after more than four decades — is still very much in progress!
The Reverend William (“Bill”) A. Wendt and the Reverend Robert D. Herzog founded the St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society, Inc., a unique program that provided low cost, dignified alternatives to the more expensive practices of the unregulated funeral industry of that time. Their goal was to focus burial rites around the needs of dying persons and their families. The St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society also made and sold coffins — not only to families of the deceased but to healthy people who wanted to plan for their own deaths. The Society believed in the importance of preparing for and anticipating death — and produced affordable coffins designed to serve multiple purposes: some held blankets or linens; others included shelves for a wine rack! This unconventional use for what many consider an uncomfortable and frightening symbol of death helped alleviate some of the associated fear. The theory was that as people became used to acknowledging the inevitability of death, then dying and mourning a loved one would become more approachable and less isolating topics.
In the late 1970s, Bill took a sabbatical from ministry and devoted himself full time to the study of thanatology and the development of the Society. In November of 1977, the Society broadened its scope to offer counseling related to life-threatening illness and bereavement. The Society changed its name to the St. Francis Institute, Center for Life-Threatening Illnesses and began providing workshops, seminars and training on terminal illness, loss and bereavement. This Institute served as a one of a kind resource for professional, volunteer and family caregivers throughout the Washington metropolitan area specializing in death, dying and grief counseling.
The Institute officially became the St. Francis Center (SFC) in honor of Fr. Wendt’s favorite saint. Throughout the years, the Wendt Center has employed some of the most gifted and compassionate therapists in the field of trauma, grief and loss. Subsequently, requests for our clinical staff to conduct training led to the development of our Training and Education Program. This has become an important program as it enables us to serve hundreds with our direct-care services and thousands indirectly through our trainings. The Center provides 50+ trainings annually, to over 1000 mental health, school, law enforcement, first response professionals and work settings coping with an employee death or trauma, among many, many others.
Word quickly spread of the St. Francis Center and the unique services being providing to the DC community. People reached out to Bill, looking for opportunities to support his efforts. This outpouring of encouragement led to the Center’s first Volunteer Program. Initially, volunteers helped in the office, answering phones, etc. Soon, however, volunteers began visiting clients who were dying and in need of companionship. What began more than 35 years ago as a few supporters who wanted to “help out” has transitioned into a thriving and committed Volunteer Program that today includes over 200 people who dedicate their time and compassion to our programs and fundraising. The dedication of our volunteers remains as vital today as it was then, and we are very grateful to the many friends who unselfishly give their time and energy — the Center would not be where it is today without them!
We were the first agency in the area to address the mental health issues affecting people living with HIV/AIDS. As a result, in 1986, SFC partnered with neighbors at the Community of Hagar in a shared effort to support loved ones of people dying in the new AIDS epidemic. Soon after, the two programs united creating the St. Francis Center’s Friends Program. Since then we have continued our commitment to people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers and have provided counseling, training and education services throughout the Washington, DC metro region. Since the late ’90s, in partnership with the Montgomery Country Health Department, we have staffed their public health clinic with grief counseling services to people living with HIV/AIDS. We also address staff morale concerns and provide counseling and in-service education services to the clinical staff who are providing car for the patients living with this chronic illness.
The Center launched its Children’s Program, catering to the specific needs of grieving children and teens. The success of this led to the development in 1997 of SFC’s School-Based Mourning Project, in which clinicians provided on-site group bereavement counseling to DC public school children and teens. Research on this model showed it to be an “evidence-based” practice and the results were published in 2002 in the Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, “The School-Based Mourning Project: A Preventive Intervention in the Cycle of Inner-City Violence.” The Three-Dimensional-Grief Group Model was created and then implemented in DC public, charter, parochial and private schools. Training and consultation on this model was provided to school counseling staff through the present as the grief group model continues to be implemented through our Resilient Scholars Program.
Throughout the 1990’s, the Center offered individual and group counseling services to children, youth and their families and then expanded services to include another important children’s program, Camp Starfish, in 2000. Soon renamed as Camp Forget-Me-Not, this annual, free therapeutic weekend camp for children and teenagers grieving the death of a loved one has provided children a special setting to share their grief experience and find hope. Over 70 volunteers, including 15 child grief therapists, provide support to the youth in this program. In 2009, The Wendt Center decided to partner with the Moyer Foundation and its national network of children’s bereavement camps. In so doing, we changed the name to Camp Forget-Me-Not/Camp Erin DC.
In 1999, the Saint Francis Center continued is journey of growth and officially became the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, honoring Bill and his mission. Around this time the Center also moved its offices to downtown Metro Center after many years of being located on MacArthur Boulevard. In late 2005, with the expansion of our outreach to clients throughout the city, the Wendt Center again relocated its services to be most convenient to our constituents: we relocated headquarters to its current northwest DC location at 4201 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20008 and opened a satellite office in southeast DC, 2041 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE, Suite 239, Washington, DC 20020.
In late 1999, the Wendt Center, in a unique collaboration with the DC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, developed and implemented its RECOVER Program to serve those who must go to the morgue to identify a deceased loved one. Since the inception of RECOVER, Wendt Center clinicians have been available on-site, seven days a week to assist families who are grieving the sudden and often traumatic death of a loved one. What a unique opportunity to support those most in need! This program model was disseminated in 2000 to all state medical examiner and coroner’s offices; it has gained national recognition and continues to be the only such program in the country.
2000s and beyond
Over the years we have supported those who have been impacted by violence. Many have suffered the tragedy of a homicide death in their family. Still others carry the pain of abuse or domestic violence. Our highly trauma trained and diverse clinical staff provides counseling services to all ages regardless of ability to pay. In 2005, the Center consolidated its services to the many individuals and families impacted by homicide by naming its range of services the HOPES Program (Homicide Outreach Project Empowering Survivors). In addition to counseling, the Center assumed fiscal and program management in 2006 of the renamed DC Crisis Response Team, a group of over 60 community crisis response volunteers who were trained to provide community and in-home services to those grieving the homicide death of a loved one. In addition, the Center collaborated with other community groups to form the first-ever DC Homicide Coalition. With over 40 community and government partners, much-needed services for grieving families were identified, advocated for and improved upon.
Crisis response intervention has always been another area of expertise for us. This work has varied and included providing on-site support to schools, government or community groups affected by a tragedy. Our services over the years have responded to such events as the Navy Yard shootings; 9/11 tragedy (for years we served on the 9/11 Survivor’s Fund Distribution Committee); the Sniper shootings; the Hurricane Katrina evacuee resettlement; the Virginia Tech massacre; the Holocaust Museum shooting; the Metro train fatal crash derailment; along with front page news of tragic deaths due to shootings, fires, accidents and other causes.
In 2005, The Wendt Center became a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), a collaboration of centers across the country which work together to advance a federal initiative to understand and expand treatment of child traumatic stress. Our collaboration with some of the most respected mental health professionals in the field has resulted in the development of education products for the public on traumatic grief and treatment models that enhance the care to children and families. We have gained national respect for our unique expertise and continue to disseminate our knowledge throughout the country.
Our community is a vastly different place today than it was when we first opened our doors. Yet as time has passed, our mission has evolved and deepened and we are doing more than ever before to help those who are living with grief, loss, life-threatening illness and trauma. With the assistance of a dedicated staff and a trained and impassioned group of volunteers, the Wendt Center has been supported over the years by caring people who keep Bill Wendt’s vision alive, that “no one should have to grieve alone.”