By ALLISON TALLEY
The McClean Fletcher Center
Mississippi’s only grief center for
children and adolescents
McClean Fletcher was a beautiful 19-year-old student at Ole Miss. She was well known, well liked and had many friends; she never knew a stranger. She was a friend to everyone and a mentor to her friends. She used faith as a guide for her life.
McClean aspired to be a pediatrician, mostly because of the joy she received from being around children. At 19, just a child herself, McClean died in a car accident while traveling home from babysitting for close family friends who lived out of town. The pain and grief experienced by those who loved her, especially her young friends, was extraordinary, as it is for anyone who experiences loss.
Twenty years ago when this story began, there were very few resources available in Jackson for adolescents who had experienced the loss of a loved one. It was new territory, but because of the vision of a few and the life of this teenager, something very special would be born.
Kathy Woodliff was just 8 years old when her mother died. That trauma led to many struggles in Kathy’s early adulthood. “A therapist told me that I was experiencing unresolved grief. I had never heard of it, but I decided that I needed to work through that,” says Kathy. “I had never processed my mother’s death, and that was negatively impacting my life.
Kathy couldn’t let go of her desire to see something develop in Jackson that would be designed specifically for adolescents. Conversations with key individuals in the community led her to a friend, a bishop in the Episcopal diocese, who happened to be on the board of Hospice Ministries.
“He introduced me to John Fletcher, McClean Fletcher’s father. She had died just two years before we met. The timing of my encounter with John was divine. We both felt called to start a resource center for children who were experiencing grief in their lives. We immediately started looking and found that the right person to lead a grief center was Isabel Cordua,” says Kathy.
In 1999, Isabel Cordua was hired, and she and Kathy began studying successful models nationwide, particularly the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon. The Dougy Center sent trainers to Jackson in September 1999, and in November the local center was started as an extension of Hospice Ministries and named in honor of McClean Fletcher. Isabel served as director until her retirement in 2016 and is still an active volunteer.
The Junior League of Jackson adopted the center as a volunteer project from the very beginning and they are still very active today. Today the center is operated by one staff member, Director Jennifer Goodwin, and a long list of volunteers who maintain the center, conduct grief sessions, and serve in capacities that have the same goal: to provide support for hurting children who have lost loved ones.
The McClean Fletcher Center is Mississippi’s only grief center for children and teens, and there is no charge for services; they are fully funded by donations. More than 160 families are served by The McClean Fletcher Center every year.
“I believe we’re successful because everybody who is on the board, who volunteers, and who gives to the center has a passion for what we’re doing. Our board is hands-on and very active, and our volunteers and donors are committed. We couldn’t be where we are without all of them,” says Isabel.
The center’s primary fundraiser is held every year near Valentine’s Day and is named The Heartstrings Gala. It started small but is now a significant event that attracts a large number of people who want to support the center. To learn more about The McClean Fletcher Center, visit mccleanfletcher.org.
Allison Talley is a writer, mother, wife and marketing executive in Ridgeland. She’s the technical director for media and website development for Creative Bread in Hattiesburg.