Eliana Kab, 12, of Merrick, left, Stella Anne Gorres, 12,...

Eliana Kab, 12, of Merrick, left, Stella Anne Gorres, 12, of Rockville Centre, and Isabelle Ducos, 9, of Oceanside, speak about the program during the SIBSPlace graduation and prom party at the nonprofits headquarters in Rockville Centre on Thursday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Eight-year-old Joey Maraia looked his group leader Courtney Riiska in the eyes while he proudly declared himself funnier than her and reminded her of the time she forgot to buy him origami paper.

Riiska, a development associate at SIBSPlace, a Rockville Centre based nonprofit for children who either have a seriously ill family member or are grieving the loss of one, couldn't help but smile from ear to ear. 

To Riiska and rest of the SIBSPlace team, Joey's banter is a welcome sign of comfort and trust — precisely how they strive to make the children they take in feel.

Development associate Courtney Riiska interacts with Eliana Kab, 12, of...

Development associate Courtney Riiska interacts with Eliana Kab, 12, of Merrick during the SIBSPlace graduation and prom party at the headquarters in Rockville Centre on Thursday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

As dozens of kids danced and hula-hooped while a DJ played their favorite hits during their end-of-school-year celebration on Thursday evening, it was clear Joey, of Malverne Park, was not the only child who felt comfortable at SIBSPlace.

Founded in 2000 and now an affiliate of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, SIBSPlace recognizes that for kids who have lost a parent or sibling, or have one in the hospital, home can start to no longer feel like a safe space. The organization seeks to create a family atmosphere that allows children to open up to counselors and therapists.

"If we can stand in as a second family and cheer them on and be present for them, I think that means so much to them, which then really means so much to the staff," said Joanna Formont, who has worked at SIBSPlace for 20 years and currently serves as its executive director.

Newsday interviewed six kids currently participating in SIBSPlace.

Grads, guests, and staff pose for a group photo during...

Grads, guests, and staff pose for a group photo during the SIBSPlace graduation and prom party at the nonprofit's headquarters in Rockville Centre on Thursday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

When asked to comment on the team of six social workers who work at SIBS, Joey counted them off with his fingers and assigned them each a positive descriptor, even recognizing that though she is not as funny as he is, Riiska is funny in her own right.

Similarly, 12-year-old Eliana Kab , of Merrick, exclaimed "Courtney for life" when asked her opinion of Riiska. 

All six children remembered arts and crafts activities, which have included the decoration of a surfboard and creation of model volcanoes, as some of their best memories at SIBSPlace.

Riiska explained that these activities are designed to be fun and therapeutic. 

"Some children had spoken about feeling like they were going to erupt with their emotions, so we incorporated opportunities for them to open up while they enjoyed the fun of building a volcano," Riiska said. 

While they clearly value what SIBSPlace offers them, the children's appreciation and empathy for each other was even more apparent.

When Joey was in his interview, Timmy Pyle, 9, of Island Park, who was interviewed first, looked through the room's glass door to make sure he was doing well. Eliana interviewed with her two friends, Stella Anne Gorres, 12, of Rockville Centre, and Isabelle Ducos, 9, of Oceanside, per their request. 

Joanna Formont, executive director of SIBSPlace.

Joanna Formont, executive director of SIBSPlace. Credit: Jeff Bachner

"They have been creating these amazing friendships and they are completely comfortable with each other," Formont said. "A new child might walk in and one of the children that has been here for five or six years is quick to grab their hand and show them the ropes because they know the benefit."

Formont added she has seen the friendships forged at SIBSPlace last years after the children have left the program, with some graduates even having each other as members of their bridal parties.

As SIBSPlace celebrated the kids graduating, Formont expressed gratitude to her team and admiration for the children.

"It's a huge sense of pride for me," Formont said. "Not only are these children able to articulate complicated feelings they are living with, but they are also able to balance it with all of the other expectations they have." 

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