Michael Braun's feature article about Valerie's House was published by News-Press on April 7, 2018. Imagine our surprise when a friend in Los Angeles emailed to say they read it in their local News-Press. The story was picked for wider distribution in other News-Press and USA Today outlets around the country.
New Valerie's House offers comfort as children’s grief center while seeking permanent site
Michael Braun, News-Press, April 7, 2018
Sharing grief, providing comfort and coping with loss are important to the children and families who come to the Fowler Street home that now serves as Valerie's House.
Since 2016, the small, Southwest Florida nonprofit has offered support to grieving children and families, but never at a location it could call a permanent home.
Children and families from Lee, Collier, Charlotte, and Sarasota counties meet weekly at the home and at a smaller office location in Naples for grief support and mentoring.
"It gives them a chance to talk to others who understand loss," said Angela Melvin, the founder of Valerie's House. The grief center is the only such operation between Tampa and Miami, she said and is part of the United Way community.
The operation began as a grief center for children on the first floor of a two-story home tucked away in the quiet Dean Park Historic District.
That came to an end last year when the home was listed for sale by the owner, forcing the non-profit to find another location.
Melvin came across a replacement, a house that was somewhat rundown and listed for sale in Fort Myers at 1762 Fowler St.
After some sprucing up with the help of the owner, the nonprofit was able to move operations and open earlier this year without missing a beat.
The center is named after Melvin's mother Valerie, who died in a car crash in 1987 when Melvin was 10 years old.
"It's a unique place," said Jay Graham, recently hired by Valerie's House as director of philanthropy.
“The new house brings the same homey feel of our original location, yet has allowed us stability,” Melvin said. “We have secured a two-year lease on our new home while we begin to build a campaign to raise money so we can build and secure a home of our own.”
There is an option to extend the lease at the end, but Melvin would like to advance the permanent home cause to avoid having to always be on the lookout for a new home.
"We felt very blessed when we found this home," she said. Moving into a strip mall or former office was not something she wanted to do, to avoid having a clinical feel.
Plans have been drawn for a permanent site and Melvin said a building campaign is in the works.
"We need more space, we need a new house," she said. "That's our ultimate goal — a place to spread our wings. Right now it's a dream, but it will be necessary. We need to rally the community."
Graham said donations have been growing, mainly through Melvin's efforts.
"There's wonderful momentum here," he said.
The Fowler Street site, a two-story yellow and white Victorian house originally built in 1910, was basically in a trashed condition. While it has been converted into a clean and bright center there is still work to be done, Melvin said.
An outbuilding with two working spaces the center uses could also use new flooring, paint, light fixtures and more.
Meeting twice a month for a few hours, children from 2 to 19 and family members sit down to a potluck meal, children get a chance to blow off steam by playing outside, and then adults and children break off into separate groups.
For comfort, those coming to the evening sessions can head over to a stuffed animal "library" and grab a plump bear, fuzzy bunny, winsome pooch, or other velveteen creatures to provide a bit of solace.
Activities include painting masks, inside and out, to reflect the children's feelings and a memory wall for photographs and drawings of those who have died.
"For the majority of families it's a mom or dad," Melvin said. "There are some siblings."
Volunteers from FGCU, Florida Southwestern State College and others help with activities that can lead to some writing their own grieving bill of rights or scribbling their feelings on a slip of paper to be crumpled and tossed away.
Those who have experienced a loss, be it the result of accidents, illnesses or suicides, can come to the house via referral or just word-of-mouth.
"Sometimes we get calls right from the hospital," Melvin said. Or, she said, from referrals by school counselors, nurses or school resource officer.
There is no cost to come and no time frame to "graduate," Melvin said.
"We have some families who have been here two years," she said, adding that grief can come in waves and someone who may have left can come back whenever they want.
"My vision is to always keep it happy," Melvin said.
What is Valerie's House?
Located on Fowler Street in the downtown Fort Myers, Valerie's House was founded by Fort Myers native, Angela Melvin. The concept is based on the nationally recognized Dougy Center for Grieving Children.
Melvin, a former broadcast journalist, successfully pitched the idea to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation in 2013.
Valerie's House is seeking donations to help it expand its services.
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Read the original article online at News-Press.
We are grateful to the staff at News-Press for their interest and their reporting on Valerie's House since the beginning. Here are links to some of the stories that have helped keep the community informed: