The story behind Valerie’s House
By Nina Mendes
There is a bright, yellow house that stands on Fowler Street within the River District of Downtown Fort Myers. The building is eye-catching from the road, but it’s what happens inside that leaves the most significant impact on the community.
Valerie’s House is an organization dedicated to helping grieving children and teens who have experienced the death of a loved one.
Angela Melvin is the founder and CEO of the non-profit and grew up in Fort Myers. Melvin lost her mother, Valerie Melvin, in an automobile accident when she was ten years old.
Inspired by her loss, Melvin is on a mission to provide children with resources to process their grief and promote peer-based discussions that encourage healing.
“This is a dream come true to have an organization in my mother’s name and to help kids as I once was,” Melvin said. “It is one of the best feelings you can have when you see a child who is hurting, and you are helping them. It’s my purpose. It’s my calling.”
Children come to Valerie’s House through a referral by therapists, agencies, social service offices and caregivers.
The moment a grieving child steps into Valerie’s House, they are gifted a stuffed animal or book of their choosing.
From there, the child meets one-on-one with a staff member to see what they understand about their loss and how death is impacting them.
The child is then placed in a grief group, separated by age and the type of loss, that best suits their situation.
“Children’s grief is often overlooked, and people tend to see them as resilient,” said Communications Coordinator, April Reilly. “Children sometimes don’t have the proper ways to express their emotions. By giving them a safe space here, we are giving them the ability to open up and realize they are not alone in their grief.”
One popular activity within younger groups is painting masks to articulate the feelings a child shows on the outside versus on the inside. Each paint color represents a different emotion.
Reilly also said it’s sometimes easier for kids to associate feelings with colors, which makes their thoughts easier to process.
There is an emphasis placed on art and creativity within the various groups offered at Valerie’s House.
Emotional support animal therapy is also offered to children and teens.
Since the opening of Valerie’s House in Jan. of 2016, the organization has expanded and opened locations in Naples and Punta Gorda.
The non-profit also collaborates with local schools to offer classroom grief support.
All services provided through Valerie’s House are free of charge thanks to donations, grants and volunteer support.
According to The Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, one in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 18 in the state of FL.
FGCU Professor Diane Cox teaches a Death & Dying course, which raises awareness of grieving children and educates others on how to work with them through their loss.
“Children are as afraid of the unknown as an adult is,” Cox said. “We try to protect them when we should be trying to teach them. The earlier we can teach a child good coping skills and that life has loss, the better.”
Cox also said adults must talk about death with children to aid in their healing. When a child is not included in discussions about grief, it causes them to fear the changing environment around them.
FGCU alum Ally O’Brien took Professor Cox’s Death & Dying course, when she was a student, to work through her childhood grief of losing her father at age 16.
Now, she is the Assistant Director of Group Support for Valerie’s House.
“Working with the Valerie’s House children and teens is near and dear to me, and I feel like I can relate to them in many ways through their grief journey,” O’Brien said. “I want to take the load off of those who feel guilty, sad or worried and validate their feelings.”
The university is among one of the several partnerships Valerie’s House has within the community. Other local organizations include the Gulf Coast Humane Society and Golisano Children’s Hospital.
One of the most recent groups formed at Valerie’s House is its “Young Adult Grief Support Group,” which extends the age limit and is offered to 18 to 25-year-olds.
Valerie’s House recognizes that individual therapy is not always the right fit for everyone.
Counseling at other mental health facilities may also put a financial burden on some families.
Valerie’s House is an alternative to the traditional therapist and focuses more on the bonds children form with others who have the same experiences with loss as they do.
In 2019, the organization served over 600 children, teens and caregivers at its three locations across SWFL.
Melvin is looking forward to seeing those numbers increase in the years to come.
“The children are here helping each other because an adult can only tell you so much,” Melvin said. “The real impact is when you have a peer or friend going through the same thing that you can relate to and lets you know you are not alone.”