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New home is a respite for children after the loss of parent or sibling

Angela Melvin cuts ribbon to celebrate the unveiling of a new home for Valerie's House in Fort Myers
Valerie's House

Dealing with the death of a loved one is life changing for anyone, but it’s especially tough when children are the ones left behind.

Angela Melvin knows that grief firsthand. She was just 10 when her mom, Valerie, was killed in a crash in Fort Myers.

“It's just so painful,” said Melvin.

Making it tougher was not having a way to share that grief.

“We didn't know how to talk about my mom. And we didn't know if it was okay. And a lot of people in our lives didn't really have the words to help us,” said Melvin.

This lack of support was the inspiration for Valerie’s House, a non-profit which provides grief support programs to about 1,000 Southwest Florida children who have lost a parent or sibling. The organization just expanded its services to a growing population by building their first house in Fort Myers. Their days of renting a space are over thanks to the help of donations.

“It's hard to put into words what we're feeling except for just absolute gratitude,” said Melvin, founder and CEO of Valerie’s House. ”We needed a house so desperately for our children and families to come to a place to call their own home away from home. A safe place that could never, ever be taken away from them. “

The new home is much bigger than anything they’ve had before.

A large playground in the backyard is adjacent to a wildlife preserve. On the front porch, big stuffed bears on rocking chairs welcome visitors and long farm tables in the kitchen are full of food and snacks. The home is specially designed to support bereaved children.

“They get to run up there when the night begins and they get to join with their friends. And each room has its own theme. Some of the themes are focused around memories. We have a wall that's just all pictures of our lost loved ones that we can talk about and bring the pictures down and share about them,” said Melvin. “We have a room in the house, called the volcano room, where they can just kick and punch a heavy, heavy punching bag if they want for the night.”

The mission of Valerie’s House idea is to support children working through their grief with help of those who understand what they’re feeling.

When asked what could have made it easier for her, Melvin said the support of another child.

“If someone asked me about her, if I was able to find another little girl in sixth grade that's mom had died. And we could know each other and depend on each other," she said. "If my dad knew how to talk to us. If he had other men that were going through this to lean on. And that's what we do at Valerie's house, we lean on each other. So we're not doing this alone.”

An estimated one in 11 kids in Florida loses a parent or sibling before the age of 18. She hopes more will take advantage of the peer support offered at Valerie's House so they’ll have a safe way to process their grief.

From mental health professionals with expertise in grief to extra outlets for art and play time, the home provides an opportunity where kids can openly express their confusion, worry, pain and loneliness.

“The last thing we want is for children and families to stuff their emotions inside and then it comes out in other ways down the line, as we know that so many of our incarcerated children are bereaved and grieving," she said. "We know that many grieving children and families without the right help and support will turn to other coping skills that aren't so great. Drugs and alcohol and, and maybe even crime, just a way to try to deal with the life now that has been presented to them. And it's not fair. It's not right, these kids should be growing up with the people that love them.”

Valerie's House employees, families and supporters celebrate opening of the non-profits first new home in Fort Myers

Melvin says about two to three kids in an average classroom are dealing with this type of loss. That’s why Valerie’s House is also trying to educate pediatricians and teachers to recognize that grief can look a lot like ADHD and make it tough to learn at school.

Melvin said they’re trying to improve the way we cope with grief as a community.

“There are adults that come to me in their 60s and 70s and will share that they lost a parent when they were young, and no one asked them how they felt or even bothered to look their way as a child. You know, oftentimes children don't have a voice,” said Melvin.

Valerie’s house now has homes in Charlotte County and the Florida Panhandle, as well. The organization hopes to transition from a rental property to their own home in Collier County soon.

Valerie’s House is offering support services to local companies to help employees cope with the loss of an employee, too. They’re also part of a coalition to create federal policy to improve national bereavement leave.

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