Mark Wandall Foundation supports, connects youth navigating grief


This article originally appeared on on March 8, 2024.

After the death of her husband, Melissa Wandall started The Mark Wandall Foundation to help children cope with the loss of a family member.

Melissa Wandall has endured the same kind of grief as the children she helps through The Mark Wandall Foundation.

At 12, Wandall lost her 14-year-old sister Tammy to cancer. At 35, Wandall lost her husband Mark in a car crash. 

The crash occurred in October 2003, five days after the couple’s first anniversary and 19 days before she gave birth to their only child, Madisyn Wandall. 

Her husband was a passenger in her brother’s SUV that was turning left onto Tara Boulevard from State Road 70. The other driver ran the red light. Wandall’s brother Philip Wolfe survived the crash, but Wandall said he is still physically and emotionally debilitated. 

The tragedy would define Wandall’s career path. She championed red light cameras for five years until Florida’s Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act passed in 2010. She is now the president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads. Professionally, she’s a public speaker and advocate.

At the same time, she is a mother. That’s where The Mark Wandall Foundation comes in. She understood the pain Madisyn would feel growing up without a father.

“I had incredible parents (Claone and Morey Wolfe),” Wandall said in thinking back to the days after her sister died. “They pulled our beds (she has a brother Philip) to the middle of the living room and said, ‘We will sleep here together until you can get back to your own rooms.’ So I had that in my home, but the grief that I experienced outside my home was so isolating.” 

Madisyn Wandall is now 20 years old and so is the foundation. Melissa Wandall started the nonprofit with the wife of her husband’s fishing buddy, Gina Babcock.

Melissa Wandall and Gina Babcock started the Mark Wandall Foundation 20 years ago.

Mark Wandall and Brian Babcock both worked for John Hancock. They always tried to get their wives together, and while the women had met and enjoyed each other’s company, life always seemed too busy for social events.

Following the crash, the Babcocks were among Wandall’s most devoted supporters. 

“To have a best friend for 20 years, it’s crazy. I’ve never had that,” Babcock said of Gina Babcock. “Her fortitude to stick with things and see them to fruition is what I admire about her most.” 

The two have slowly but surely built up the nonprofit that exists mainly on donations. Without a big bank account and a brick and mortar location, it hasn’t been easy.

The two friends work out of Wandall’s home in Tara. They have no staff and only hold one fundraiser a year. The foundation also receives some smaller grants from agencies in Sarasota and Manatee counties. 

Despite limitations, the foundation has served over 500 children from around the state, with about 65% coming from the Tampa Bay area. 

The Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model reports that one in 11 children in Florida will have a parent or sibling die by the age of 18. The No. 1 goal of the foundation is to make those kids understand that they are not alone. 

Ayden Matthews attends and volunteers for the foundation’s Equine Assisted Learning Program.

The foundation offers four services: an annual camp, a quarterly reconnection events, equine therapy and scholarships. 

The reconnection events are laidback events like barbecues and kickball games. The next one is a fishing clinic, but the purpose is always the same — to bring the kids and caregivers together.  

The annual sleepaway camp is the largest program the foundation funds. It’s a partnership with another nonprofit called Comfort Zone Camp. Campers stay from Friday through Sunday, and there is a strict no caregiver rule. 

“These kids are not going to say a lot in front of their parents,“ Wandall said, “And the parent, the caregiver — they need that weekend. They are encouraged to take time to themselves to regroup and regenerate before these kids come back on Sunday.” 

The camp costs about $70,000 for 65 children to attend. Children can attend their first camp at age 7 and return each year until they graduate high school. 

The campers all have lost either a parent, caregiver, or sibling. The camp teaches them coping skills while exploring nature and building friendships. 

Natalie Meabon attended her first bereavement camp when she was 8 years old. Now, she’s 13 and attends annually. 

Nicoletta Camisa is Natalie Meabon’s “big buddy” at the 2023 Comfort Zone Camp.

Meabon lost her mom (Amy Acoveno) when she was 4 years old to Type 1 diabetes. She lives in Parrish with her maternal grandparents Bonnie and Kevin Acoveno. 

“Melissa Wandall is an angel on earth,” Bonnie Acoveno said. “I personally feel like part of Natalie’s adjustment to not having a mother is to be credited to the foundation.”

Each camper is paired with a “big buddy” for the weekend, so the camp requires up to 95 volunteers. The foundation is about 40 volunteers short for this year’s camp being held April 19-21 at Warren Willis United Methodist Camp and Conference Center in Fruitland Park. The camp is held at the same site each year.

There are three requirements to become a big buddy: Pass a background check, take on online training and have compassion.

“One of the biggest reasons people don’t sign up to train is because they think they’re going to be sad all weekend or can’t handle the child,” Wandall said. “There’s always somebody else there that can support you as a volunteer. If a child is having a hard time, there are therapists that volunteer their time.” 

Acoveno said her granddaughter sometimes returns from camp very talkative, and other times she’s quiet. Either state is normal for the experience, and Meabon is always glad she went.

Because so many children are waitlisted for the camp each year, the foundation is seeking donations to add a second camp moving forward. 

“We’re funding the programs we currently have,” Babcock said. “Our goal is to get ahead so we can put more things into motion.”

Picture of Melissa Wandall

Melissa Wandall

International Keynote Speaker. Dedicated to educate, encourage and empower individuals and organizations for greater impact.

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