Through Steve’s Club, Cori Lake Walls wants to ensure no grieving student goes unnoticed or unheard
Cori Lake Walls isn’t accustomed to being the subject of the story, but she has no problem stepping into the spotlight for the sake of helping kids.
A former television journalist, Cori is the International Baccalaureate film and television production instructor at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach, Fla., and a member of Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association (PBCCTA). In 2021, she was awarded FEA’s Human and Civil Rights Award for her work with Steve’s Club, an after-school group she founded that supports grieving students who have lost a parent, caregiver or sibling.
Cori’s own life was touched by grief early. Her father, Steve Lake, died when she was an infant. Although Cori doesn’t remember her dad, his death cast a long shadow over the rest of her life. “Looking back, my father’s death, even though it happened before I could even remember it, was always a cloud that was over everything.”
As a middle school student growing up in Westchester, N.Y., Cori struggled and says she was lucky her teachers knew about her loss. “My dad died when I was 8 months old, but I really went through it when I was in eighth grade because I realized my dad wasn’t going to see me graduate from eighth grade.”
Cori says she wishes there had been a resource like Steve’s Club when she was in school. “When I was growing up, I went to the same school district K-12 and did not know anyone that lost a parent before 18.” She later learned that several classmates had lost parents but simply never talked about it. She didn’t want her students to experience the same isolation.
“I just wanted to make sure these kids knew they were not alone, that how they were feeling was okay, and if you need a safe place to talk, I am here.”
‘What about the kids?’
As a middle school student, she fell in love with television journalism after taking part in her school’s television production program. During this time, she discovered she excelled at telling others’ stories and quickly became the main anchor for her school’s television news.
Cori wasn’t necessarily drawn to being on camera and says her passion was, instead, using her voice to raise awareness and inspire action. “I’m not going to sit back and watch a trainwreck happening in front of me and not try to do anything about it.”
Cori would go on to become a full-time television news reporter and cover major stories ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the West Memphis Three investigation in Arkansas. One story she says touched her heart is that of DeAntae Farrow, a 12-year-old who was tragically shot by West Memphis, Ark., police. Walls was so heartbroken over the story she reached out to Deante’s mother, Debra Farrow, at her home and delivered her a tray of lasagna, salad and desserts. “That was the only thing I could think to do because that story, seeing a young boy killed, it still bothers me.”
Cori covered many stories centered on grief, particularly those involving children who suffered the loss of a parent. After the cameras were turned off, she frequently found herself asking, “What about the kids? What’s going to happen to them?”
New career puts kids front and center
After 10 years in television reporting, Cori decided it was time to switch careers. While teaching English as a second language, she was offered a position teaching film and television production at Atlantic High School in Palm Beach County.
Despite her initial reluctance, Cori accepted the position in the fall of 2013. There, she quickly bonded with her small class of 12 high school students while they worked to produce the school announcements each morning. As Cori grew close to her class, she learned four of her students had lost at least one parent or caregiver.
“When I found out that they lost their parent, I shared that I lost my parent as well. It was just like that connection immediately with those students, letting them know if they needed to talk, I get it,” Cori said. Afterward, she realized there was no system in place at her school to identify children grieving the loss of a parent, sibling or caregiver and decided to create her own form for students to fill out at the beginning of the year.
Seeing a need, and meeting it
In 2019, Cori had an unprecedented 10 students in her class who had lost at least one parent, and she knew she needed to take action. “I just wanted to get [the students] together, so that they knew they weren’t alone.” She reached out to other teachers in her school and, with their help, was able to identify 34 students on campus dealing with the loss of a parent or caregiver simply by word of mouth.
Cori then enlisted the help of a school counselor and created a grief support group she named Steve’s Club in honor of her late father. The club began meeting weekly, and, in its third year, now boasts over 80 members.
Elizabeth George, a tenth-grade student at Atlantic High School and member of Steve’s Club, says the club played an instrumental role in saving her from the isolation that often accompanies grief: “Before Steve’s Club, I was grieving silently. I didn’t really tell anyone about it until Mrs. Walls came up to me, actually, and talked about Steve’s Club. Ever since then, I realized I’m not alone, and there’s other people who are like me, who can relate to me and have gone through similar experiences that not a lot of people can understand.”
In addition to grief support, club members get help with everything from college readiness to job applications.
Nathan Veillard, a senior at Atlantic Community High School, says the resources he’s found at Steve’s Club are invaluable. “It’s helped me to become more of an adult because, with Mrs. Walls’ help, I’ve been applying for scholarships and creating connections with people in the business world.”
Turning awareness into action
According to a 2021 study conducted by Evermore, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of bereaved children and families, there are more than 140,000 parentally bereaved or orphaned children in Florida, nearly 3 percent of the total child population in the state.
Cori worries she is missing students. “The number one roadblock is identification.” She says that for Steve’s Club to succeed and successfully spread across the state and the nation, school districts need to first develop a way to systematically identify students who have lost a parent or caregiver. She recommends that school districts update their registration forms with a question that asks students if they have had a death in their immediate household. “We cannot know who to help if we don’t have the data.”
Though the Covid pandemic has certainly raised awareness of school-based grief support, Walls says she hopes this attention will translate into action. Recently, Cori has achieved one of her biggest goals: expanding Steve’s Club into every school in the Palm Beach County school district. This is just one small step in her ultimate goal. “Ideally, I would like Steve’s Club to be all over Florida and in all the schools. However, it starts with the administration to believe these students are being ignored.”
Our unions pledge support
At the 2022 FEA Delegate Assembly, members adopted new business item (NBI) 2022-27 to pledge our support for grief training: “FEA will support grieving students who have lost a parent, caregiver or sibling, by providing grief sensitivity training to teachers and education staff professionals through the AFT program or other similar programs. FEA will advocate to identify students who have lost a parent, caregiver or sibling, and for teachers to have access to the data to know which students to support emotionally and academically.” The NBI was put forward by Cori and fellow PBCCTA member James Michael Woods.