Valerie’s House providing support in toughest times
Entering Valerie’s House on Fowler St. in Fort Myers is a solemn experience.
It is also meant to be an uplifting one where children can come to grips with the loss of a family member and connect with others who have similar experiences.
The idea for the home was born out of the experience of founder Angela Melvin’s loss of her mother Valerie at the age of 10 due to a car accident. A portrait of Valerie with her daughters Angela and Lisa are the first thing you see when entering the home.
The home welcomes the families of those who lost a loved one and are looking for support to help children in the grieving process and deal with the loss of a family member. The program begun by Melvin, a former reporter and congressional communications director, is in its fifth year.
This past year, there were approximately 1,000 people who walked through the doors of Valerie’s House, including 387 children and some Fort Myers Beach families.
One of the walls in the home is adorned with the photos of those who passed away and left behind families who utilized Valerie’s House to grieve.
At Valerie’s House, staff members recognize that everybody deals with loss differently. The therapeutic nature of the program is as much about coming to grips with a future that will be permanently without a mother, father or sibling as it is finding others to connect with who have similar experiences. Adults act as guides and mentors to facilitate discussions and activities.
Alexa Nargi, communications coordinator and executive assistant for Valerie’s House, said the home’s teddy bear library is a testament to the community’s contributions with dozens of stuffed animals, along with blankets donated for children to keep.
Nargi said the gift a stuffed animal is one of the first ways children are introduced to Valerie’s House. “It can help them smile a little bit – maybe take some of that stress away,” she said.
“Sometimes there is a sense of relief, sometimes there is guilt, something they meant to say that they didn’t get to,” Nargi said.
There are group and individual projects which provide children an outlet to express themselves through art with a registered art therapist. There is a play room where they can play with toys and figurines in the sand. There are books on grief and some light-hearted children’s books.
“Our groups try to explain the permanence of death and keeping memories alive.”
Melvin said she learns from the children. “There is no black and white way of dealing with grief and loss. Each child is different,” she said.
For Jaimee Thompson of Fort Myers, having Valerie’s House to go to, has helped her two young twins deal with the unexpected loss of their father Craig two years ago.
“We couldn’t ask for a better place to help us navigate a loss,” Thompson said. “They were four when their dad passed away so unfortunately they only remember what I tell them now. They don’t remember him so much.” Ms. Thompson’s parents moved in with them after Mr. Thompson died. They like to look at family photos together and share stories to preserve their memories.
Thompson said Valerie’s House “has helped them just understand the permanence of him not being here anymore. They went to sleep and woke up with him not being there anymore,” she said.
“We have a big support system.”
The groups meet twice a month. Individuals will share their thoughts and experiences in a group setting or smaller setting. Everything discussed is kept within Valerie’s House unless there are specific thoughts spoken about inflicting harm, Nargi said.
“The kids share what works for them,” she said.
For a few months last year, Melvin didn’t know how she was going to operate the center when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to put staff members out of work between April and August.
The organization was able to get help through the CARES Act as a nonprofit but mostly relies on donations from the community to compensate its 12 members as there is no cost to partake.
This past weekend, Melvin held an open house for the first time since the pandemic.
Melvin said one in eight chil
Fran Darpino, of Philadelphia and Bonita Springs, has led her community in contributing to Valerie’s House after her granddaughter benefited from a similar grieving center and support group in Philadelphia. “It made all the difference for her,” Darpino said.
“A lot of the volunteers have gone through a loss themselves as a young person, Nargi said.
“A lot of people who had a loss when they were young find us,” Melvin said. “It’s very difficult to talk about it.” Staff at Valerie’s House undergo training twice a year and must undergo background checks.
Melvin is mentoring Mia, a 13-year-old from Cape Coral whose mother was killed by a drunk driver on the State Route 31 drawbridge when she was 10 – the same age that Melvin lost her mom.
Mia said she likes playing with crafts. One group project entailed making a boat out of tinfoil with pennies to weigh it down. They had to learn to connect the boats together so they would float in the water. It was an exercise in how to support each other, Mia said.
“We all have something in common and we all need each other,” Mia said.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “Being here, helped me.” Her father, Joey, said he was able to pick up information from other people who have dealt with similar losses. The mother, Ashley Sullivan, was a bartender and hair stylist. The driver of the vehicle was sentenced to 15 years. “He’s got kids too,” Joey said.