Social worker counsels clients by day and volunteers by night

Dina Rosengarten stands at an overlook point in Jerusalem on a visit to Israel in October 2018. (Andrea Crane)

After 30 years as a public behavioral health social worker, Dina Rosengarten is still in love with her role. She has a new position as director at a large, private, non-profit behavioral health center in Tucson. She counsels residential clients, mostly those in substance abuse recovery and with severe mental health issues. She also oversees clinical staff and direct services and supervises case managers. “There are lots of moving parts and long days but I love what I do, the people I meet, and the staff I work with. It fills my soul,” she says.

Rosengarten, who grew up on Long Island, New York, came to Tucson when she was 15. Her father died when she was 12, leaving her mother, Lucy, with four children to manage, two of whom were ill. “I was so embarrassed when my dad passed. I was the only kid without two parents back then. I felt exposed that everyone knew and were looking at me,” Rosengarten says.

Her mother had lived in Tucson briefly as a child and loved it. She packed the family off to the Old Pueblo. Rosengarten finished high school in Tucson, attended the University of Arizona for her undergraduate work, and completed her master’s in social work at Arizona State University.

Through her work resources, she was aware of the local non-profit Tu Nidito (Spanish for “your little nest”), which provides support groups for children and families impacted by the serious illness or death of a loved one. As a professional, Rosengarten often encourages people to go to support groups, and referred clients to Tu Nidito.

Little did she know that she would turn there for help when her husband of 13 years, Ed Davenport, died in 2008. Rosengarten and her three now-grown children, Michaela, Trey, and Rachel, participated at Tu Nidito. “This was my first experience in a group. Having that sacred time to myself was really important. For me, it was a great support system of sacred time to talk about my own personal grief,” she says.

With adult groups separate from youth groups, Tu Nidito allowed the whole family to create connections with peers going through similar situations. “We went as a family for three or four years,” Rosengarten says.

After twice-monthly sessions, on the way home, the family talked in the car about the sessions or anything at all. “It was a real connection for us,” she says, adding that the kids didn’t want to stop going. “It touched all of us so deeply. The biggest gift is what it did for my children. I always wanted to go back and volunteer.”

In 1994, its first year, Tu Nidito supported 12 dying children and their families. It now serves more than 800 families each year. With a core staff of experienced nonprofit and pediatric professionals, more than 300 volunteers are the organization’s backbone. They complete comprehensive training to provide tools to support grieving children and families and together volunteer more than 10,000 hours a year. A board of directors of community leaders and volunteers provides organizational governance, and programmatic and financial oversite.

Rosengarten recently returned to Tu Nidito, not as a client but as a volunteer. She now is a co-facilitator of adult groups and finds it “amazing.”

With about eight participants each, she says, Tu Nidito’s groups are intimate. The setting, in a donated and converted home feels like a living room with comfortable furniture and pillows. Kid-friendly group session rooms and a playground provide places where children can demonstrate their grief through play. There are lots of interactive games and hands-on activities.

A behavioral health background is not required to volunteer, Rosengarten says. Many University of Arizona students in medical, behavioral health, or youth-focused majors serve as volunteers, but the summer volunteer population diminishes. Volunteers initially are paired with an experienced co-facilitator with different experiences from their own. Co-facilitators present a topic for the evening, contribute comments, and keep things on track. “They are so kind and caring to each other in the group that it allows the process to happen,” Rosengarten says of group participants.

The program is free and open to anyone who meets certain criteria. “Their lives are in chaos,” Rosengarten says of participants. “They don’t need to worry about costs or bills at this time in their life. The only thing [staff and volunteers] ask is that clients come consistently. It is a gift to the community to offer [this program]. Not a lot of people know about it. It fills a very special niche in the community.

“We all have friends and family to talk to, but after a while, we don’t want to burden them with our grief. It becomes uncomfortable to talk about grief all the time,” she says. “This [group] teaches you that the issues you have to deal with are not the same for everyone. Like doing things again for the first time without your partner. It is a safe place to think about and prepare for how those events and activities, like a family holiday dinner, might feel.”

Following the 90-minute group sessions, the facilitators debrief together. The groups are raw with emotion, and it takes time for volunteers to decompress. Some volunteers have been at Tu Nidito 10 years or more.

“They believe in their commitment, bringing their heart with them,” Rosengarten says. “I’m glad to be doing this. It is rewarding and exciting to be there contributing in some way. It’s amazing in terms of helping people to heal. Now I’ve seen both sides of how powerful it is. It’s just a fit.”