Child Life in Action

at a Non-Profit Serving the Children of Adult Patients with founders Meredith Cooper, MA, CCLS, LPC, and Melissa Hicks, MS, CCLS, LPC, RPT-S

by Bea Wikander | November 5, 2019

Meredith and a patient
Photo caption: Meredith working with a family

Meredith Cooper, MS, CCLS, LPC, and Melissa Hicks, MS, CCLS, LPC, RPT-S, co-founded the non-profit Wonders & Worries in 2001 after identifying a gap in services for children of adult patients. Based in Texas and serving the Austin and San Antonio metro areas, their non-profit counseling organization provides free coping support to children ages 2 to 18 who have a parent facing a serious illness.

Meredith and Missi, who both have child life oncology backgrounds, and the rest of the Wonders & Worries staff are experienced counselors and child life specialists trained to provide children with age-appropriate information about a parent’s illness and the skills they need to communicate with parents, family members and health professionals. 

A parent’s serious illness can have negative, life-changing effects on a child, including emotional, behavioral, and academic problems. Meredith and Missi have created an environment where children feel comfortable sharing a range of emotions and where their experiences are normalized through support groups with peers. Parents also receive assistance in navigating this challenging time with their children.

Since 2001, Meredith, Missi, and their growing staff have worked with over 8,800 family members, including 99 adults who received a parent consultation with a child life specialist. On average, the professional counselors and child life specialists see 150 children and parents each month. Meredith and Missi believe all children deserve support, and their staff has the training and expertise to work with children on the autism spectrum and those with learning and physical differences, including hearing impairment. Multiple staff members are bilingual in Spanish and English.


Families are referred from a variety of sources, including medical teams, school counselors, and word of mouth. School counselors and teachers are a consistent source of referrals because they are often the first people outside the family to associate a child’s behavioral changes with a parent’s serious illness. The organization has employed a full-time outreach director, also a Certified Child Life Specialist, to further promote the organization’s services and to establish connections within the community. As a result of these efforts, Wonder & Worries is a point of referral through many medical systems in Central Texas.

It is critical that parents are aware of child life and counseling services from the time of diagnosis because the sooner they are given the tools to communicate about their health condition and cope with the effects on the entire family, the better prepared the family will be for any future stressors. Upon referral to Wonders & Worries, a thorough intake is completed with the parent to determine the best support services for the children and family. Based on that assessment, children may participate in structured, six-week support groups (ages 5-18) or individual sessions (ages 2-18). The six-week sessions are designed to build trust; educate about the specific illness, treatment, and side effects; and facilitate the expression of feelings and coping skills.

Photo caption: A Wonders & Worries counselor and patient

Wonders & Worries Display
Photo caption: Wonders & Worries Austin Office
After the six-week sessions and a follow up parent consultation, school-age children are given the option to join monthly check in groups if they meet certain criteria. There is a teen group option for middle school and high school clients. While there are determined check points and established protocols, Meredith and Missi always say, “Once a Wonders & Worries family, always a Wonders & Worries family,” and families may return for additional services (if applicable), referrals, and to attend special family fun events.

Meredith and Missi's experienced staff also provide parent training and bereavement support for existing families should that become necessary. A recent addition to an already robust array of services is a help line that allows families coping with an adult’s illness to gain support, insight, and strategies to support the children affected regardless of geographic location.

Among the 156 families served,
87% reported improved communication skills,
84% reported reduced anxiety,
90% reported increased feeling of security at home, and 73% reported improved school performance.

Data, Research & Curriculum

The six-week curriculum described earlier formed the basis of a randomized clinical trial for stages one through three cancers. The results of this clinical trial were very favorable and are currently out for publication. Previously, in 2016,  a study of the impact of Wonder & Worries programming was published in the Journal of Psychological Oncology, which supports the efficacy of this therapeutic model. Among the 156 families served, 87% reported improved communication skills, 84% saw reported reduced anxiety, 90% reported increased feeling of security at home, and 73% reported improved school performance.

Meredith and Missi are currently involved in another research study with The Steve Hicks School of Social Work, which looks at family communication when the diagnosis is stage four (not end of life). The existing curriculum is being modified with the awareness that the end goal of treatment is different, which effects the type of education required.

Meredith and Missi offer curriculum training to individuals and organizations well as an online CEU called Helping Children and Teens Prepare for and Cope with Loss.

About Meredith

Meredith first learned about child life while an undergraduate at Arizona State University in 1974. She had originally intended to become a child psychologist and changed her major after learning about Laura Gaynard’s research study on child life. She transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and began studying in their Child Development and Family Studies program. Meredith was part of the team that established the child life program at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, Austin’s first children’s hospital, and began working there as a part-time child life specialist on the oncology unit. She was occasionally called to assist in the adult hospital with the end of life for an adult patient and their family. Meredith recalls that it “was heartbreaking, both as a parent and child life specialist, knowing how perceptive children are, to think the parent and child had walked this journey of treatment without support or guidance on how to communicate during this very difficult time.” This realization led to her interest in providing support for this underserved population.

Melissa Hicks and Meredith Cooper

About Missi

Missi first learned about child life as a freshmen student in Dene Klinzing’s hospitalized child class at the University of Delaware. Missi says child life was “the profession I was looking for but didn’t know existed,” and she changed her major soon after the discovery. Missi completed her internship at Johns Hopkins and began working there and at Kernan Hospital in Baltimore right after her graduation in 1988. After becoming certified in 1989 and working full time in Pediatric Oncology at Johns Hopkins for many years, Missi relocated to Atlanta and worked as the child life specialist at the AFLAC Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. A few years after co-founding Wonders & Worries in Austin, she returned to Atlanta to work as the Psychosocial Program Director for Camp Sunshine. A dedicated ACLP member and volunteer, Missi has served as Board President, Certification Chair, Board Director, and the chair of many committees.

Child Life Profession