Written Story by Brandy Aguilar, Video by Shaun Mockoski
In today’s Starting the Conversation, we introduce you to a nonprofit called Billy’s Place. It began after a Valley mom and her son lost a very special person in their lives.
The help the two received many years ago was so powerful that she wanted to pass on what they learned to give a sign of hope to those dealing with grief.
“I started my freshman year and that was the first time I have ever played,” said Billy McGreal.
Billy plays volleyball for Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria. He is a junior.
“The constant action, it’s fun and there is always something going on,” Billy said.
The 16-year-old, who also plays club volleyball, takes what he has learned from Billy’s Place and applies it to all aspects of his life.
“A lot of stuff I learned from Billy’s Place and the other place was about interacting with people, talking to people and helping people through different experiences,” Billy said. “I feel like it helps me to do well in a team setting.”
“We know that grief is always going to be here, but he’s moving on and he’s got a great group of friends and volleyball,” said Billy’s mom, Julie McGreal Schragel. “He started playing that his freshman year and it’s just been so awesome for him to meet a whole group of guys that he can hang out with.”
Billy was only 15 months old when his dad, Mike, died.
“So he doesn’t have a memory of his father,” McGreal Schragel said. “I can even remember in kindergarten, him coming home and just expressing the want for a father, like I want my dad here.”
McGreal Schragel and Billy found the help they needed at a local grief support center in Wisconsin. It changed their lives and she knew that she had to pass on to others what they had learned.
“I started dreaming it up when I first moved out here [to Arizona] in 2008, just because there wasn’t a whole lot of resources for kids that were grieving,” McGreal Schragel said.
McGreal Schragel is the Director of Care and Compassion at Billy’s Place. She created the nonprofit with Kris Friedman back in 2013. They provide peer-facilitated support groups for kids, young adults, families and seniors experiencing grief.
“It’s always hard to make that call in the beginning, but I think the big thing is, it’s just taking that first step,” McGreal Schragel said.
Just ask Kim Humphrey.
“This is a place where you don’t have to walk on eggshells when you talk. It’s non-judgmental,” Humphrey said. “So many of us on the team and our volunteers, our donors, we all have a story of our own significant loss.”
Humphrey lost her 6-year-old daughter, Mayzie, in 2019.
“I think she lived a very powerful six years of life,” Humphrey said. “From the outside, people would probably look at the struggles she had to endure because of her medical complexities, but she was a happy girl and there wasn’t a person we walked by that didn’t smile at her.”
Humphrey’s experience with Billy’s Place led her down a new career path. She is the nonprofit’s Director of Operations and works closely with the families.
“We have our grief resource building here in the office that I tell them about and help them find resources they might need,” Humphrey said. “We just normalize what you’re feeling at that moment and I think that’s what makes it so comfortable here.”
It’s that safe environment at Billy’s Place that is helping kids and adults open up and share stories of their special loved one.
“I love the wall [at Billy’s Place], right, and that is why we’re all together,” McGreal Schragel said. “I love the fact that after people have been here for two, three or four months and you start seeing the kids bring other kids over [to the wall] and say look, that’s my mom, that’s my dad, and it’s a part of them and makes their life real and that they were there.”
“It’s kind of unreal seeing back all the way, gosh, probably six or seven years ago when my mom said, ‘I’m thinking of starting a little organization,’ and she asked me, ‘Can I name it after you?’ and at the time I’m like, ‘Sure, I don’t care, that will be cool,’” Billy said. “It’s awesome to see what that one little idea has grown into and what it’s going to keep growing into over the years.”
One event growing every year is the nonprofit’s Hike for Hope. It will take place at Sunrise Mountain in the West Wing Community on April 17.
“It’s about a half hour, 45-minute hike and people come together and they hike in memory of their special person,” McGreal Schragel said. “Sometimes it will be two or three people or one of our families who has been coming here since the very beginning. Team Sissy, they get 30, 40, 50 people that come.
“I think that first year that you lose somebody, you just don’t know what is going on and you’re kind of just lost,” McGreal Schragel continued. “So I think what I hear the most is people saying, ‘Honestly, I don’t think I could have got through that first year without having my Billy’s Place family.’”
“I feel like having a place where people come together and talk about their feelings, it really just puts a lot into the memory of my dad and it almost immortalizes him,” Billy said.
Interested in signing up for the Billy’s Place Hike for Hope event on April 17? Go to billysplace.me for all the details.