MANKATO —The pain of losing her youngest child hurts Mary Larson today as much as it did 18 years ago.
But now Larson said she can deal with it better because she's learned to live with it, thanks in part to the local nonprofit One Bright Star.
Larson joined One Bright Star in 1998, about two years after losing 3-month-old Ryan to spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement.
For Larson the organization has given her a positive way to remember and honor her son and a way to help other families experiencing grief. She's served on the nonprofit's board and was involved with its effort to build a memorial in Erlandson Park.
"Trying to function as a family when you were going through grief is not an easy thing," said Larson, whose two older kids were 12 and 7 at the time of Ryan's death. "We had to be as whole as we could be, but you just learn to live with it."
One Bright Star has helped hundreds of families such as Larson's since its creation in 1998. Its hosting its 13th annual winter fundraiser, called a "Celebration of Life," Saturday at the Country Inn & Suites.
The event will feature a meat raffle, photo booth, gaming entertainment, dinner and a live auction and a silent auction.
Last year the organization raised about $20,000 at the event, One Bright Star Executive Director Cassi Wanous said. It's hoping to raise that or more this year, she said.
One Bright Star was founded by four mothers who experienced the loss of a child. The organization sends out grief journals to families throughout Minnesota who experience the loss of a child. It sells pins, pendants, plaques and pavers to help parents remember their losses. It also sponsors a monthly radio program on KTOE called "Life After Loss."
In addition One Bright Star hosts an annual memorial service in September at its memorial site in Erlandson Park. It also offers grief-support resources and links on its website, onebrightstar.org.
This year the organization has received a grant to host an event for kids 4 to 17, which it will host in September, Wanous said.
The organization mailed out more than 250 journal packets nationwide in 2014, Wanous said. It has 144 plaques and 84 pavers at the memorial site in Erlandson Park.
One Bright Star offers matching grants for the purchase of a plaque or jewelry item.
The organization is working on a new website that will make it easier for families to find resources, Wanous said. It has hired a new director of outreach to help get word out about what the organization does.
Wanous said that people sometimes don't know what to say to parents who are grieving. They will see them at the store and will pretend they just don't see them, because it's a difficult conversation to have, she said.
"We don't want it to be like that," Wanous said. "We want parents to know they're supported."
Larson said the community has gotten better at having those conversations over the past 18 years.
"People aren't afraid to say, 'tell me Ryan's story.'" she said. "People are willing to ask you, 'how are you doing,' or, 'how did Ryan die,' and 'tell me about your son,' and it's a wonderful thing, because you love to hear your child's name."