Former Board Member, Companion Volunteer, Facilities & Capital Campaign Committees member

John Wickliff, a former board member of Denver nonprofit Judi's House

John has been involved with Judi’s House since the early days of the organization. He has served on the Board of Directors, volunteers as a Companion Volunteer, and currently serves on the Facilities committee and Capital Campaign committee. 

Judi’s House: You have been involved with Judi’s House for many years, how did you come to find the organization? 

John Wickliff: I met Brian Griese through a mutual friend many years ago and we immediately became very close friends. I lost my dad when I was 23 years old and spent the next 5 years or so really looking for a way to give back.

My dad had struggled with substance abuse and I wanted to help troubled youth who also were experiencing drug issues. But I quickly realized that I didn’t have enough in common with the kids I was trying to reach to really make an impact.

Then I found Judi’s House and decided I could really make an impact as a Companion Volunteer. Unfortunately at that time they didn’t have a Companion Volunteer training session scheduled for several months. But they did tell me that they needed someone to volunteer to help put in new tile floors, so I jumped right in. I then spent the next 6 weeks re-tiling the floor of the basement in the St. Paul house. 

From there I was able to complete my Companion Volunteer training and began supporting groups of kids grieving a loss by suicide. Ultimately, almost 20 years later, I’ve worked with all ages of kids, including the very young kids, and even parents. I started as a Companion Volunteer in 2003, and have been doing it ever since!

Can you tell me a bit about your experiences with Judi’s House as a board member and companion volunteer?

I just cycled off the board in 2020 after 15 years of service. I had many years of experience as a Companion Volunteer for the organization and Brian wanted me to be on the board both for my experience as a volunteer and because I can relate to what it is like to be a kid who has lost a parent. I have had the pleasure of being on the board during the highest points of the organization and through many challenges as well. It has been quite a journey!

As a volunteer, one experience that really stands out is from a former program called Heroic Journey that we did in partnership with Outward Bound. One kid in the program was a young teen. He was a tough kid, struggling to comprehend the whole concept of a grief journey. He was so angry and was lashing out at everyone, especially his mom. 

He had been participating in Judi’s House services for over a year. When we did Heroic Journey, I saw him in the treetops course one day with this huge grin on his face. When he came down, he was crying. I felt that this was my open door to talk to this kid. We sat down and he told me he thought he needed to be so tough and hard, he didn’t know how not to be. I gave him permission to just be a kid and said, “you don’t have to be something you’re not. What has happened to you will continue to impact you for the rest of your life, but you can be a great role model for others.” It was one of those moments where the kid was able to be vulnerable and heard my message.

It has been so cathartic to me, just sitting in the rooms with these kids, whether teens, middle schoolers or younger kids. I love the idea of helping them through their grief journey, but it is so cathartic to be there with them. I let them know that my journey started 26 years ago, and it is still going on. Grief never goes away, but it does get easier. Volunteering at Judi’s House is my calling. 

What do you think makes Judi’s House so unique?

Many of the families that come into Judi’s House are in so much pain. They walk in searching for answers. They have experienced a huge loss and they have been struggling. Even if they don’t get all the answers at Judi’s House, they get support that they didn’t know they needed. No one goes through life expecting to lose a spouse or other loved one. No one ever wants to think like that, so no one is prepared for how they would handle it. Judi’s House provides so many resources for these families and so much tender guidance on how to cope with something they never expected to experience. 

When kids open the door to Judi’s House, they come not knowing what they are supposed to do there. They are pretty anxious as well. But Judi’s House is a safe place where the kids walk in and they can do anything and be themselves. They can be unsure of their feelings, but sure that it feels good to walk in the door. 

What impact do you see with families served by Judi’s House? 

I like to share the story of a kid who was an early teen when he came to Judi’s House over a decade ago. He’s just a super happy guy now and we still connect from time to time. I can tell you without a doubt that he wouldn’t be the same adult without the work that he, his sister, and his mom did at Judi’s House. For those kids that grasp it, participate, dive into what their grief looks like, no matter how bad the loss, they always come out so much better on the other side. I tell my groups, especially the teens that what happened to them is awful. They feel like they’ll never recover. But I tell them that this grief journey will make you a better, stronger person. And the friendships they make at Judi’s House are going to be very powerful. 

What is your hope for the future of Judi’s House?

I think my hope is that we can ultimately help any kid, anywhere in the world. With the services we provide, the research, and all of the amazing resources we put together, I’m hoping we become known all over the world. I’m hoping we can work with caregivers and therapists in other countries and other states. By following the model that Brook and Brian have created, we can continue to hit home with kids who might not have access to our facility in Denver. My hope for the future is that Judi’s House reaches as far as it possibly can. 

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