Supportive Sisters: Amanda the Panda Volunteers Ashley & Rachel Rinehart

When Ashley Rinehart decided to join her high school's school-to-work program in the spring of 2018, she knew exactly where she wanted to complete her internship: EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program.

"I knew I wanted to do something in human services, and my family had been a part of Amanda the Panda when we were younger," Ashley, 18 and now a freshman at the University of Northern Iowa, recalls of her previous knowledge of the program.

Nearly 15 years ago, Ashley and her family had participated in the program following her mother's death. At the time, Ashley was just four years old and was unable to take part in the organization's support groups.  However, reminders of their time at Amanda the Panda - t-shirts and candles - remained fixtures in the family's home.

The program was never far from Ashley's mind, leading her to reach out to Amanda the Panda about their internship program. Soon, she was busy taking care of "odds and ends" for the program.

"I did a variety of things. I helped plan events, I went through training and was able to be a facilitator for a support group," she notes. "I kind of helped with things around the office. I helped facilitate a group in an elementary school."

She also planned to volunteer at Amanda the Panda's Grief & Loss Camp that spring. But she wasn't the only Rinehart to return to her Amanda the Panda roots. Older sister, Rachel, 21, was quick to volunteer for the Spring 2018 camp, as well. 

"I love helping kids, and we benefited from Amanda the Panda when we were younger, so it was great to help," Rachel, a junior at the University of Iowa, explains.

Since then, the sisters have remained volunteer fixtures at camp, and Ashley has continued volunteering with Amanda the Panda, facilitating summer support groups.

Last month, the sisters reunited at the Spring 2019 Amanda the Panda Grief & Loss Camp in Story City.

"Since we're both in college we don't get to see each other all the time," Rachel says. "It's a great opportunity to see her and I love helping the kids."

For Rachel, the kids are a central reason she continues to volunteer at camp.

"Making those relationships with the kids, the little ones, and with the older ones…it's fun to see their growth," Rachel notes.

For Ashley, the best part is watching campers when they realize they aren't alone in their grief journey.

"Camp draws people who have been through traumatic loss situation and grief," she says. "They're connected through that. The best part is seeing kids who are experiencing something drastic, like the loss of a parent, realize that they aren't alone. It's easy to tell people they aren't alone, but it's just words until they see others going though something similar."

During the weekend-long camp, participants take part in a number of support groups and activities aimed at helping them deal with their grief, while connecting with others.

"The small groups were great this year," Ashley said. "My group really opened up, it was amazing to see. When we first started, no one wanted to share.  By the end, they were sharing and asking each other questions."

Rachel recalls watching her group take part in the anger wall activity. During the activity, campers write what they are angry at on a wall in washable marker, then throw eggs to erase the words – and their anger.

"It was really cool to see them get their anger out," she says. "We all cheer each other on."

While helping others is at the forefront of Ashley and Rachel's desire to volunteer with Amanda the Panda, they also feel a personal connection to the camp.

"Volunteering gives us a chance to remember our mom," Ashley says. "Camp gives us a time to honor her and remember her."

Both sisters plan to continue volunteering at camp, at least through the rest of their time in college, and they recommend others give it a try.

"Sometimes people can be hesitant about volunteering, thinking they won't know anyone, but everyone at Amanda the Panda is so friendly and welcoming," Ashley says. "Any new people just become part of the group."

"It's really awesome," Rachel says of volunteering. "It's really fun for us."

 Interested in volunteering with EveryStep? Complete our volunteer interest form, and we’ll connect you with an EveryStep program that could use your time and talents!