News-Press: Facing Grief with Courage and Honesty

One mid-summer evening, a few days after Father's Day, Tom Hayden, Senior Engagement Editor at The News-Press, visited Valerie's House and took time to sit in with one of our teen grief support groups. 

Tom shared his experience and impressions of the evening in a thoughtful column that offers a look at what goes on at Valerie's House:

Valerie’s House is about listening and understanding that this type of loss isn’t something you have to hide.
— Tom Hayden, The News-Press
 

I admire the courage, honesty of teenagers working to overcome the death of loved ones

 

Displaying courage well beyond their years, 20 teens sat in a circle, sharing their stories of deep loss. Each one of them had experienced the death of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent. They were open, honest. They were forced to grow up too early, but their strength, faith and their friends at Valerie’s House provided a relevant and important compass.

When the group first sat down on a warm evening a few days after Father’s Day, outside, on the pavement, near the old house on Fowler Street, the first questions asked of them by Valerie’s House founder and director Angela Melvin were to share their name, where they go to school, who they lost and on a scale of one to 10 how they are feeling.

ValeriesHouseTeensGriefGroup.jpg

I was sitting off to the side, listening. I’ve known Melvin for several years since she started this remarkable place, called Valerie’s House, named for her mom, who died when Melvin was 10. It is a place where kids and adults can come and share in their grief of losing a loved one. This house works because of Melvin, her staff and the people who find hope, inspiration, relief and warmth in sharing their feelings with each other.

On this evening, the teenagers surrounding Melvin were still hurting, the losses still fresh, but there they were showing unimaginable strength, telling people, some of them just meeting for the first time, their deepest thoughts. I was seated about 10 feet from the group, but I could barely hear the first boy who spoke.

What was so amazing about this young man, and how the group works, is that by the end of the hour discussion, I could hear every word from this boy. He had started the evening settling back against a basketball goal post. But by the end, he was sitting up, really engaged in the conversation. He even played two rap songs, he had written, for the group. One girl, who was skeptical about what kind of music this young man could produce, told him how surprised she was, and how amazing his songs were.The kids wanted to know how they could get copies.They were impressed. 

None of these teens said they felt like a 10 as they went around the circle. A 10 just wasn’t possible at this stage of their lives, the loss still too consuming. It was only a couple days after Father’s Day, so for many of them, who had recently lost dads, the sadness was magnified.  

Many of the teens talked about how their school grades had dropped since their losses. School didn’t seem to matter as much, but they were trying, searching for a way to feel normal again. 

As the hour progressed, nearly every kid engaged in the conversation. They weren’t afraid to open up and talk about their loved one. And that’s the point of Valerie’s House. It’s about being able to share a common pain with people experiencing many of the same feelings and emotions. Valerie’s House is about listening and understanding that this type of loss isn’t something you have to hide.

The house isn’t about leaving death outside the front door. It’s about bringing it in and remembering the person and sharing with others memories of the father, who took them camping; the mother, who was always there with a solution, the grandparent, who had a wonderful smile and was so caring, and the brother or sister who may have been annoying at times but was always a best friend.

Everyone that participates at Valerie's House is asked to sign a confidentiality agreement so that the people there and what they share is protected. It's important for trust within the group. 

In a time when the world always seems to fight, when immigrant children are taken from their parents, when kids die in what should be the learning sanctuary of a school and the Parkland kids fight back to keep it from happening again, I was able to witness first-hand the strength of youth, the amazing resiliency of youth, the resurrection of spirit after much of it had been shattered.

One a scale of one to 10, I was probably about a seven when I first sat down to listen to these kids. I was a 10 when I left. 

Editor's note: Tom Hayden's wife is operations director at Valerie's House. Tom Hayden is Senior Engagement Editor at The News-Press.

This column originally appeared in The News-Press on June 27, 2018. Read the original News-Press column here. 

To learn more about Valerie’s House and its programs, or to volunteer or donate, click here

News-Press: Children Find Hope and Healing at Valerie's House

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. Seems the story got 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.

 The two-story yellow and white Victorian house was originally built in 1910. After many years as the home of several early Fort Myers families, the house has been refurbished to accommodate the Valerie’s House organization.

The two-story yellow and white Victorian house was originally built in 1910. After many years as the home of several early Fort Myers families, the house has been refurbished to accommodate the Valerie’s House organization.

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.

To donate

Valerie's House is seeking donations to help it expand its services. For more information, visit valerieshouseswfl.org.

Connect with this reporter: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook) @MichaelBraunNP (Twitter)

Read the original article online


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 help keep the community informed:

More: Valerie's House offers hope for those who grieve: my view

More: Valerie's House allows grief to be shared

More: Valerie's House plans support group for grieving husbands, dads

More: Boston Red Sox visit Valerie's House

 
 

If you ever need someone to help you feel less alone or you need someone to talk to about your experience with loss, email Valerie’s House at info@valerieshouseswfl.org 


Speaking up about Grief and Mental Health

WINK TV's Channing Frampton spoke to Valerie's House founder, Angela Melvin, about grief and loss following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida on February 14. 

Find more on this story at WINK News.


If you know a child grieving the loss of a parent or sibling, contact Valerie's House for more information about our group support programs. 

Gulfshore Life Features Valerie's House Expansion

 
 Teens at Valerie's House use a Jenga game to talk about their grief. Each block has a different prompt, such as "How did your friends react to your loss?" and "Tell a special memory of the person who died." 

Teens at Valerie's House use a Jenga game to talk about their grief. Each block has a different prompt, such as "How did your friends react to your loss?" and "Tell a special memory of the person who died." 

The long-term grief support program started by Angela Melvin in Fort Myers has grown to grown to include locations in Naples and Cape Coral. Gulfshore Life covers the story of Valerie's House and how far it has come in a little over a year. Check out the full story!

To learn more about Valerie’s House and its programs, or to volunteer or donate, click here

Naples Daily News Profiles Newest Valerie's House Location

 Lead facilitator Megan Goddard goes over the rules before the start of a group session on the opening night of Valerie's House in North Naples on Thursday, March 9, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Nichole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News)

Lead facilitator Megan Goddard goes over the rules before the start of a group session on the opening night of Valerie's House in North Naples on Thursday, March 9, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Nichole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News)

Valerie’s House celebrated a major milestone — the opening of a new location in Collier County. Naples Daily News shares what Valerie's House has to offer to families suffering from grief in the area. Check out the full story!

To learn more about Valerie’s House and its programs, or to volunteer or donate, click here

Boston Red Sox Visits Valerie's House


(February 16, 2016)  Boston Red Sox players visit with kids at Valerie's House. Players spent the afternoon doing a special activity in which children created a memorial stone in memory of their loved for the Valerie's House Butterfly Garden.  The players also spent time playing basketball with the kids, throwing the baseball around, and making children feel on top of the world. The Red Sox organization says it chose to spend time with Valerie's House children because of the impact the organization is having on many kids' lives in Southwest Florida.  Watch the video and read more here on the News Press website: http://www.news-press.com/story/sports/2016/02/29/red-sox-visit-charity-encounter-young-yankees-fan/80949024/