Healing Tree at the Dempsey Center

A family-centered, youth-focused model of care to make life better for kids and teens impacted by cancer. 

Meet the Healing Tree Team

Sarah Walter, LCSW, MPA

Sarah Walter has more than 10 years of experience supporting children, teens, adults, and their family members through life transitions, trauma, and loss using a clinical lens grounded in attachment theory. She earned her Master of Social Work and Master of Public Administration degrees at the University of Utah’s Graduate school of Social Work in 2016. Prior to joining the Dempsey Center in 2020, Sarah worked as a clinician supporting children and their families at Sweetser’s Eslie J. Parquette school, community behavioral health clinics, and as a Field Instructor at a wilderness therapy program in Utah. Sarah was previously licensed as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and has experience treating adults and adolescents with Substance Use Disorders. She is trained in Motivational Interviewing, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), the Attachment Self-Regulation and Competency (ARC) Framework, and Structural Family therapy. Sarah has facilitated life skills and psychotherapy groups related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills, coping skills, and mindfulness for children, teens, and adults. She has a passion for helping children and their parents build a stronger sense of connection and confidence in each other and their own resilience.

Services for Kids

Services for children ages 3 to 12.

Teen Services

Support for teens ages 12+.

Young Adult Services

Services for young adults age 23 to 40.

Get Started

A Healing Tree Introduction is your first step in accessing Healing Tree services. For youth, connection to the environment and the people they might encounter are important to establishing the Dempsey Center as a source of comfort and safety. Additionally, this time allows staff to better understand the needs of your family to provide individualized care throughout your time at the Dempsey Center. During the introduction, your family will create a resource bag, tour the Center, and talk about services that are available to you. 

Consultation and Guidance

Talking with your child or teen about your own or a loved one’s diagnosis can be difficult and many adults struggle with how to share the news and answer questions. We understand these feelings and are prepared to help you each step of the way.

To help you navigate your family’s journey with cancer, we’ve gathered some trusted resources that can drive conversations, answer questions, and assist your family in providing open and honest information. 

Frequently asked questions

I haven’t told my children about the cancer diagnosis yet. Do they need to know before they visit and can a Healing Tree Counselor tell them instead?

Yes and no. Children need to be told who is sick and that the sickness is called “cancer” before they visit the Dempsey Center. You are the best person to inform your children that someone they care about has cancer because it reinforces their trust in you. If you have questions about how to talk to your children or answer difficult questions they may ask, our counselors are great resources to listen to your concerns and offer guidance. We also have resources to help you here.

My kids are doing well right now and I don’t want to worry them by bringing them to a counselor at this time. What would be the benefit of introducing them now?

By introducing young people to the Dempsey Center when things are going well, they have the opportunity to meet a Healing Tree counselor at a time when they are not in distress, allowing them to develop a safe connection they can turn to later. It is also important to know that a Healing Tree Introduction is not counseling — it is simply a time to meet, let your children know that they are important, and demonstrate that the Dempsey Center is a safe place for them . An added benefit is that the Healing Tree counselor you meet with will also get to know your family better so that we can provide the best individualized care for you in the future.

I think my children are too young to understand cancer. How do I know if they are being affected by it or not?

Children can be affected by cancer in various ways and at any age. Depending on the relationship to the person with cancer, the age of the child, and the seriousness of the illness, the recommendations and support will vary. Although children under the age of 3 may not have the ability to cognitively understand what cancer is, they feel the stress that their parents are experiencing and are especially affected if their routines are changed as a result. Common warning signs for very young children include regression in skills or behaviors and an increase in “clinginess.” Healing Tree counselors can talk with you about your particular circumstance and offer insight and guidance to help you mitigate the impact on your children. Our counselors can also guide you toward possible support options within the Dempsey Center and your community.

What happens if I decide not to tell my children about the seriousness of the cancer but still want them to receive support?

Support at the Dempsey Center is still possible and parents and Healing Tree counselors will work together to find a solution that best supports the entire family. The recommended guidance for parents is to give open and honest information in a way that children can understand. This is important because most distress that children/teens experience when affected by cancer is caused when they are unable to express the difficult and complex emotions they feel, ask important questions, or trust that their parents will communicate honestly with them about changes in their lives. Withholding information can damage their trust in you. It is important to know that counselors will never offer specific or private health information to children or teens but they will honor the child’s right to ask questions. It is important to know that counselors will never lie to a child or prevent them from talking about something they wish to during counseling, support groups, or other programming. Creating a safe place to share worries, thoughts, and fears is a central element of support.

I’m concerned for my child/teen but he/she is shut down and I’m afraid he/she will not want to come to the Dempsey Center or not speak while there. What should I do?

This scenario happens often and is most common with teenagers. Teens are often shut down because they are working hard to avoid confronting the upsetting feelings related to this cancer experience. Visiting a cancer center is, of course, in total contradiction to their natural desire to avoid the source of their distress. Despite this, bringing your child/teen in for an Introduction is a great way to de-bunk any misconceptions they might have about what the Dempsey Center is. They do not have to share anything they do not want to and they are the ones in charge during their visit. Healing Tree counselors are easy to be with and offer a warm, energetic, and fun experience that can put even the most reserved youth at ease.

Can I bring a child with me to other programs or services at the Dempsey Center if they have not had a Healing Tree Introduction?

Healing Tree designated services are the only programs at the Dempsey Center intended for youth. Bringing a child with you to a program or service intended for adults may prevent you from participating. Occasionally, if children are older, can entertain themselves quietly, and are not disruptive to a program, the instructor or provider of the service may approve their attendance. Children under the age of 12 should never be left unsupervised. Please be aware that as a cancer support center, cancer is frequently talked about openly. If this is a concern, it is probably a better choice to not bring the child with you to an adult service. If childcare is a barrier for you to receive oncology support at the Dempsey Center or treatment at a local hospital, please ask to speak with the Youth and Family Services Coordinator to find out more about our free short-term childcare solution through the YMCA of Lewiston/Auburn.

There is a child I am concerned about but I am not their parent. Can I, or we, still use the Healing Tree services?

Yes, you can speak with a Healing Tree counselor for support and discuss your concerns. Following this discussion, a Healing Tree counselor will need to speak with the child’s parents or legal guardians and receive consent in order for them to use services, if you decide that this is still something you would like to pursue.

There is a family I am close to and I think they could benefit from services, could you reach out to them? (i.e. family friend, extended family, etc.)

Unfortunately, no. The Dempsey Center’s policy states that we will not reach out to someone unless they have already given permission to do so. Our recommendation is that you gather information for the family and encourage them to contact us when they are ready. If the family is interested in support but just overwhelmed, you are welcome to schedule a visit on their behalf and/or accompany them to the Dempsey Center.