A Healing Place

updated 01/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

On the warm late afternoon of Oct. 19, 2005, all seemed well with the Pearson family of Alpharetta, Ga. Mom Susan Pearson had just gotten home after running errands; dad Rick, a sales director, was working in the kitchen on a presentation for the next day. The kids were busy with the usual stuff: Luke, then 10, doing homework on the couch; Cole, 12, playing guitar; and twin sister Carly, at the breakfast bar with her dad, proudly showing off a social studies test. "It was an 80, my best grade of the whole entire year," she recalls softly. Then, the bottom fell out of the Pearsons' world. "My dad was just standing there," Carly says. "Suddenly, he dropped the test. Then he fell down. He just fell on my lap."

Almost unbelievably, Rick Pearson—trim, seemingly healthy and just 45—had suffered a massive heart attack. As Susan made a frantic call to 911, "me and Cole ran outside and started screaming," says Carly, now 13. "It felt like it wasn't true." But just an hour later at a nearby hospital, "the doctors said he didn't make it," recalls Susan, 46. "I told the kids. I didn't beat around the bush."

Not surprisingly, the loss of their dad—a man who cooked baby back ribs and flank steak for dinner and used to crack his kids up by making up the words to songs—had a devastating effect. Luke withdrew, Carly suddenly didn't want to be alone, and as Cole puts it, "I started crying until I thought I couldn't cry anymore."

Despite their pain, the family knows things could have been much worse if it hadn't been for a young woman named Kate Atwood. At 12, Atwood lost her own mother to cancer, and today, at 28, is the founder of an unusual organization that gives the Pearsons and kids like them something she wishes she'd had—a place where they can get warmth, camaraderie and support from other youngsters who have suffered the loss of a parent or sibling. In addition to monthly outings to zoos and baseball games, one Saturday a month the kids come to the club, in a suite at a suburban Atlanta office park, for a couple of hours of what seems like a cross between group therapy and just hanging out. For that brief time, says Carly, "you feel like the same person you were before it happened. Here, we laugh about things, and it's okay."

No one understands the value of that better than Atwood herself. Sixteen years ago she received the terrible news about her own mother, who died of breast cancer at 41. "I was in social studies class, and I was called [to the guidance counselor's office] over the loudspeaker," she says. "I looked at my friend and said, 'I'm not going.' They had to literally come and pull me out." Atwood tried to outrun her loss by becoming a high achiever, but it wasn't until her freshman year at the University of Virginia that she finally allowed herself to grieve. "I was living in a dorm with 50 girls, and after a bad day, they all came in and called their moms. My spirit had been crushed. I just hadn't allowed myself to acknowledge it."

Atwood began volunteering at a nearby kids' camp, and, after college and a brief stint in sports marketing, decided to act. In 2002—with $1,500 charged to her credit card—she officially founded Kate's Club, meeting with one of her first client families at an Atlanta coffee shop. "The youngest girl [whose father had died of cancer] looked at me and said, 'She doesn't look like I thought she would,'" says Atwood. "She thought I'd be old and in black because that's what she associated with death and grieving. Here I was, 24 and wearing pink."

Today, supported by fundraisers and private donations, Kate's Club is a place where its 95 members can have fun and share feelings (see box). At one meeting last summer, Carly recalled her anger at paramedics' reassurances that her dad would be fine. Shamy Gnanamuttu, 17, whose father died two years ago, knew just how she felt. "They tried to move me away but I said, 'You can't do that, that's my dad,'" she said. "It would have saved us a lot of sorrow if we'd been told, instead of thinking he had a chance to live." Just then, though, the mood lightens and everyone starts talking about favorite memories.

For her part, Carly is finally hopeful that life may just become normal again—even if it's a new kind of normal. "When I'm having fun now, I can think about my dad without it bringing me down," she says. For that, there is clearly one person to thank. "Kate's nice and bubbly," says Carly. "It's nice to see that even though her mom died, she turned out okay."

For more information about Kate's Club, go to www.katesclub.org

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