Feb 20, 2012 9:40 AM by GEORGE MORRIS
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Warrick Dunn seemed like the ultimate role model for dealing with tragedy.
When his mother, Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Betty Smothers was gunned down in 1993 while on an off-duty assignment, Dunn, then 18, suddenly became responsible for five younger siblings. A star athlete at Catholic High School, he went on to set football records at Florida State University and play for 12 years in the National Football League. He helped raise his siblings, and has been honored for his charitable works.
Dunn became young, rich, successful, widely respected - and miserable.
"I didn't have a relationship with my teammates," Dunn said. "I wasn't a nice person. I was so closed. I was so guarded. I could not sit down in a room and have my back to a door or a window. Sitting down having a conversation with someone, I was constantly looking over my shoulder. All of those things could have been avoided or could have been minimized if I would have had the right guidance after Mom passed away."
Now, Dunn wants to make sure other youngsters get some of the help he had needed.
Dunn was in town this month talking to local officials and nonprofit groups and interviewing director candidates for his latest idea, called Betty's Hope. Starting this fall, he wants to provide grief counseling to children ages 5-18 who suffered the loss of a parent.
This will be Dunn's second family-based charity. For 13 years, his Home for the Holidays program has provided $5,000 in down-payment assistance and complete home furnishings to families in Baton Rouge, Tallahassee and the two cities where he played in the NFL, Tampa and Atlanta.
The idea for Betty's Hope came three years ago when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate, quarterback Brian Griese, invited him to visit his charity in Denver called Judi's House, named for Griese's mother, who had died of cancer when he was 12 years old. It provides support and counseling for children who have lost their parents.
"It resonated with me," Dunn said. "I texted Jennifer (Maxwell, executive director of the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation) late at night and said, 'I've finally found the program.'
"For the longest time, I've tried to figure out what would be the next big thing that the charity does. We talked about all these different avenues - scholarships and things like that - but I wanted something I could really get behind and be passionate about. I listened to those kids talk that night and hearing Brian's story, I felt like that was the perfect fit."
The fit was not only because of Dunn's and Griese's similar loss. In 2003, while playing for the Atlanta Falcons, a teammate spoke about the help a friend had received from counseling. Dunn began receiving counseling. Having spent years being a father figure to younger brothers and sisters, even while in college, Dunn had never before taken time to care for himself.
"For the longest time I didn't realize that I was depressed, that I was hard on the inside. I just thought that was normal," Dunn said. "You could see a change in that after a year."
Dunn met Alesia Alexander Layne, a licensed clinical social worker who has written three books on children's grief, to help design the program. Unlike Judi's House, Betty's Hope will not initially have a brick-and-mortar location.
Instead, it will be on wheels. Dunn plans to convert a recreational vehicle into a mobile facility that can visit schools and community centers. That will lower the up-front costs, and make it more accessible.
"Transportation in Baton Rouge is a huge problem," Dunn said. "If you put a location somewhere, we just feel like we're not able to touch all of the areas we need to touch. Baton Rouge is so spread out into different pockets, we felt if we have a mobile unit we can go and touch kids in schools and different community centers and move around and be mobile."
Another advantage of going to schools is that Betty's Hope can more easily reach groups of children instead of individually.
"What we've learned about grief as a society is that grief is something you do by yourself," Layne said. "It's a lonely, isolated experience. In particular, kids have been the silent grievers. Part of this vision with the mobile unit is to create this community. You're seeing your classmates who are having similar experiences around their losses.
"Our idea is to create a peer-to-peer space where kids are sharing their stories and they're getting validation around what their experience has been and also what it could be. It also takes into account that everybody hasn't had the level of support or communities surrounding them. A lot of kids are struggling with grief by themselves and not doing well."
Sometimes that's obvious - poor grades, bad behavior. Other times, as with Dunn, grief may be funneled into over-achieving while never properly dealing with the root problem.
Dunn said he hopes to expand Betty's Hope to other issues, such as children whose parent or parents are incarcerated.
For now, the need among those who have experienced death is great. Dunn appreciates how others stepped forward when his mother was killed.
"The city got behind my family, and I need to continue to pay it forward but also say thank you to the city, also," he said. "For me, this is an opportunity to come back and have a program that's only in Baton Rouge."