Emilio Parga’s briefcase is a mobile office brimming with letters, faxes and Washoe County coroner statistics on the myriad causes of deaths occurring in the Truckee Meadows.
The Reno counselor is the founder and executive director of The Solace Tree, a compassionate center for grieving children, teens and families who have lost a sibling, parent or primary caregiver to homicide, suicide, accidental death, cancer or AIDS.
“No one in the community is seeing grieving children,” Parga says. “Grieving is not an eight- or six-week program. It’s ongoing. Kids need to have their needs met throughout the year.”
Services are free at The Solace Tree, which works with local law enforcement and funeral directors to help families also hurting economically.
“If someone needs money for memorials or funerals, I provide it so they can commemorate and memorialize their family member, [and] they’re not forced to donating a family member to science or cremate against their cultural bereavement-specific beliefs.”
Through art, writing and exercise, youth in mourning are allowed to express their feelings. Such “play,” Parga says, is crucial to grief’s cathartic process, though there’s no one formula for working through it.
“Every human is unique and grieves differently,” he explains at the House of Bread, where proprietors Eric and Chris Breeze keep a large barrel for Solace Tree donations. Parga doesn’t give a second thought to the carbohydrate content of the staff of life, having cheated death and its aftermath more than once.
When Parga, an only child, was just 10, his father died. “He was supposed to come home one weekend and got killed in a car accident,” says Parga, now 34. “Friends and family members didn’t want to talk about it. No one supported me. I kind of just let it go.”
Three years later, a car accident left Parga in a coma for three days, in intensive care for two months and reeling from a near-death experience. Returning to school in a cast and wheelchair, Parga realized he wasn’t the only one who’d changed.
“Even my neighborhood friends reacted differently, almost like they were afraid to ask, ‘What’s it like being in a coma, to have all your bones broken, or almost die?’ That’s when I started seeing, ‘Wow, I’m here for a reason!'”
Parga’s pivotal moment occurred in 2002, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, news that impelled him to start The Solace Tree.
“I wasn’t afraid to die. It brought me closer to God. I’ve beat cancer. There’s an 80 percent chance it’s gonna come back, so every day I fight it with this vision for children.”
Parga says the majority of northern Nevada deaths for people aged 5-34, both sexes, all races, happens from car accidents.
"I want to work with families from unexpected deaths, when we say good-bye to someone for the day and they never come back. When kids come through the support groups, at first they won’t talk about it. But they’ll listen, see they’re not alone [and] start to speak out. Research has shown that children who have no model for grief do self-destruct. Grief is part of life. With The Solace Tree, people can feel safe to talk about it."