Bringing hope to grieving families
If there is a place where angels reside – figuratively and literally – it is in the headquarters of the Allison Brundick Haramis Foundation, aka Angels for Allison, in the heart of historic Ortega.
Upon entering the small bungalow nestled near Allison’s old stomping grounds of St. Mark’s Episcopal School and Village Dance, visitors to the nonprofit are immediately uplifted by the joyful countenance of the place. Gabriel-like angels, complete with trumpets and trimmed with eye-catching ribbons, line the walls and dangle from the ceiling, many painted in Lilly Pulitzer pink and green, Allison’s favorite colors. Somehow the angels bring Allison’s laughing, dancing spirit to the place, a place where she never set foot in life.
“I feel that Allison is here with her joy and with her happiness, and with her kindheartedness,” said Allison’s mother, Drew Haramis, foundation president. “She is the heart and soul of this place. This is a happy place to be because it’s her memory and her spirit here that keeps me going. People who didn’t even know Allison can feel it. I just really sense that Allison is here.”
Founded by Haramis and her husband, Lee, with the help of close friends Sandi White, Mary Lee Willetts, and Pamela Oates, the foundation is a living legacy to honor the 15-year-old Bolles School student, who was tragically killed in a car accident while coming home from school April 17, 2009.
Known throughout the First Coast as Angels for Allison, the nonprofit is literally regarded by many needy Northeast Florida families as an angel, because it brings them hope by assisting them with funeral expenses when they suffer the loss of a child.
“It’s our mission to help others when they lose a child and can’t afford it. Most people don’t expect to bury a child,” said Haramis, with tears in her eyes. “There are no words to describe the pain and the feelings you go through when you have that gift – your child, your gift from God – taken away.”
Final expenses are covered by the foundation only after it has been notified through its official referring partners. Referring partners include Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Baptist Health, St. Vincent’s HealthCare, UF Health NICU and PICU, Orange Park Medical Center, Memorial Hospital PEDS Care, Nemours UF Health Medically Complex Office and the Northeast Florida Association of School Psychologists, according to the foundation’s website.
Once a referral is made and accepted, benefits are paid directly to funeral homes, and for at least a year, bereaved families receive information about how to deal with grief as part of the foundation’s “Angel Gram” project.
The foundation raises money to pay for funeral expenses through a community-based art program, which for many who have suffered the loss of a loved one can serve as art therapy. Volunteers, church groups or people with special events, such as bridal showers or birthday parties, can come to the nonprofit to paint angel figures made of metal, which they can buy and take home or donate to the nonprofit to be sold.
“The painting of the angels is incredibly healing. It’s like art therapy,” said Oates, adding that when Episcopal Head of School Dale Regan was murdered on campus in March 2012, painting angels at the nonprofit provided solace for many Episcopal students.
“The kids were passionate about it. The foundation set aside 100 angels, which the kids painted in Episcopal colors with Dale’s name on the wing to put in each classroom. It was then we realized the effects of this place go way beyond Allison’s immediate family. It’s a ripple effect. It’s not just about raising money for families, it’s about the people who are involved. People need to participate to heal their own hearts.”
In addition to painting angels, supporters also purchase angel notecards designed by elementary school students, as well as hats, drink koozies and limited-edition Lilly Pulitzer scarves, which have been created especially for the foundation. In addition, supportive local businesses throughout Northeast Florida stock the angel wares.
The foundation sponsors 16 elementary school Halos Clubs and 19 Wings Clubs at middle and high schools, which are overseen by its Student Leadership Council comprised of representatives from Wings schools. Council members organize fundraisers such as Halos dances, to support the foundation. “This organization is giving young people the chance at getting leadership experience in both nonprofit and board work,” said Willetts. “I’ve not seen a model like it in any other organization.”
The Festival of Flight, the nonprofit’s major fundraiser, started as an Eagle Scout project and has expanded to put as much as $100,000 into the foundation’s coffers. At the beginning of the family-oriented festival, a memorial service is held and the names of every deceased “angel” who has been supported by the foundation, is read aloud. “We feel it is so important for the families to know that their child has been prayed for and remembered,” said Haramis.
Since the nonprofit began in 2011, 369 families have been served.
News of Allison’s death was devastating, not only to her immediate family but also to the greater Ortega community, said Willetts, noting more than 100 friends and neighbors flocked to the Haramis family’s front lawn to provide their support.
In the months that followed, it seemed natural to find some way to give back to the community, and Angels for Allison was born a year later, said Haramis. “We wanted to do something to keep our daughter’s memory alive, and the greatest gift you can give is to help others. Allison loved to do things for other people. Having this foundation be something that reaches out to others in need truly was Allison’s spirit, and I think she would be so proud of this foundation.”
At first Willetts and Oates believed creating a dance scholarship might be more in keeping with Allison’s bubbly personality, but it was Haramis’ husband, Lee, who decided the foundation would assist parents coping with the death of a child.
Not long after Allison’s death several Ed White High School students were killed in a car accident and their parents were forced to hold bake sales to pay for their funerals, a situation that “rocked” Lee’s world, Haramis said. “My husband said, ‘If a foundation becomes a reality, we are going to pay for the funerals of kids whose parents can’t afford it.’ He was adamant about it. He didn’t want any parent to go through the pain we went through and then have to worry about paying for a funeral.”
Ironically, the idea for Angels for Allison came from Oates, a social acquaintance of Drew, who had never met her daughter.
Formerly a resident of Richmond, Va., where she owned a decorative arts business and made money painting whimsical angel forms, Oates had kept a box of left-over unpainted angels in her Ortega garage after she moved. Although her husband begged her to throw them away, Oates had hung onto the angels, feeling they were going to be used somehow for a higher purpose.
“I never met Allison; it was Drew who inspired me,” recalled Oates, who said she was overwhelmed with compassion and empathy after spotting Haramis at a Christmas function. “I remember thinking ‘there is no difference between her and me except that her baby is gone.’ I just couldn’t take the heartbreak and grief. It was more than a heart could handle,” she said.
Having focused on the Book of Acts in a recent Bible study, Oates realized the angels might be part of “God’s call” in her life.
“It kept coming to me ‘this is what we can do with the angels. I can give them to Drew, and we can have the community paint them to raise money,’” she said. “I called Mary Lee, knowing she was a very close friend of Drew. I told her that when I used to sell the angels, they would fly out the door, no pun intended. I thought it would be a great way to gather the community together – kids, parents and grandparents. We could all come together, paint them, and use the money for whatever Drew wanted to do in Allison’s name.”
“Pam told me God came to her in a dream and said, ‘Those angels are for Allison,’ said Haramis. “We hope the funds they raise bring some type of ease to families in their darkest hour.”