Lisa Miliaresis feels a special sort of holiday spirit.
After death, "our loved ones are still here," the Mount Laurel psychic, 53, declares. "I speak [their] language. I view myself as an interpreter."
I meet Miliaresis, a grandmother who works full-time as a benefits administrator, at an annual event called Spiritual Continuum for the Holidays. Her friends Janice Gilpin, a Reiki practitioner who lives in Medford, and Kimberly Friedman, a meditation instructor from Marlton, are the event's cohosts.
I'm not sure what to expect, but the women radiate a cheery calm I soon find myself sharing. I'm skeptical about transmissions from beyond the grave, but meditation certainly has changed my life. And the Christmas tree in the corner and the home-baked cookies on the table at Evesham Township's Gibson House Community Center make for a festive atmosphere.
"People are stressed out, and this is an opportunity to sit back and relax," Miliaresis says, explaining the rationale for a holiday gathering that involves candy canes, good cheer, and contact with the dead.
"It's about remembering how connected we really are. We're soul-connected," Friedman says. "It's about setting an intention for the highest good, creating a sense of oneness . . . and sharing that during this time of year."
Sunday's session also raised more than $1,700 for a Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia client and employee.
"This is the third year Lisa's group has done this for us," says Kathy Morris, human resources director at Goodwill's offices in Maple Shade. She's well aware that some people regard believing in psychics as akin to believing in Santa Claus, but notes that the Continuum for the Holidays offers more conventional feel-good activities.
Miliaresis and her colleagues "are a wonderful group," Morris says. "The first year they [raised money for] a single father with two children, last year a single mom with five, and this year a single mom from Burlington County."
At Gibson House, 70 women middle-aged and younger, and about a dozen mostly older men, share 90 minutes of guided meditation, Reiki ("vibrational energy work," in Gilpin's words). and "channeling," which is Miliaresis' speciality.
Admission is free, as are the refreshments, but a donation box quickly fills with bills. Many in the room are clients of one or more of the event's three organizers. Others are instructors, practitioners, therapists, trainers, coaches, or students of disciplines including yoga, fitness training, and weight loss, as well as more esoteric fields such as "body reactivation" and "past-life regression."
"We are all children of God," Miliaresis says, earnestly requesting that the dead deliver "messages of the highest good. May they come through love."
Then her manner of speaking changes abruptly. It becomes rushed, urgent.
"An initial 'F' comes through. It does sound like an Italian name. I get 'father figure.' Do you understand?" she asks the group, seeking someone who will identify with the vibrations she's receiving. It's patter familiar to anyone who has seen the popular cable TV show Long Island Medium, without the accent or the drama.
Miliaresis explains to those assembled that she is hearing the shouts of people who have "transitioned" to the other side, and describes the information "coming through."
"They want you to know they are fine, and in a good place and have healed."
The whole thing might have been easy to caricature - Christmas cards from heaven, or some such - were it not for the seriousness of the three leaders and the sadness among some in the audience.
Not for nothing did Friedman circulate among the rows of chairs with a box of tissues.
Several people tearfully seek messages from departed loved ones. One couple has lost a 25-year-old son to drugs, and a young woman in the front row says she hopes for a word from a friend who died just that morning.
To all, Miliaresis offers reassurance. And to those facing the holidays without a loved one they wish they could speak to again, comfort. Perhaps a bit of joy.
Raising money and holiday spirits in Marlton: www.philly.com/spiritsEndText