Where kids grieve and recover from loss, among friends
They’ve endured things the rest of us can’t imagine—yet these teens and younger children tonight seem happy, giggling and playing pingpong, shooting baskets, chasing one another as kids do in an otherwise peaceful Fort Myers neighborhood. The difference between these kids and others is that they’re visiting Valerie’s House, their escape from pain, the place they’ve come to share stories and to heal. Each of them has lost someone close, usually a parent.
Valerie’s House, a sanctuary of teddy bears and floor cushions, is where those suffering can learn they’re not alone in their grief, and, hopefully, move forward, says Angela Melvin, founder of the nonprofit. Open only a year and already serving some 100 children and their families, Valerie’s House has locations in Fort Myers and Naples. “Our journey—we’re going to own it,” Melvin says of suffering a lost family member.
Melvin was just 10 when her mother died. A nurse, Valerie Melvin left two small girls and a husband. “My little sister and I had been waiting for Mom to pick us up at a Fort Myers skating rink just a few hours earlier,” Angela wrote of her mother’s death in 1987, and of her father’s arrival at the rink. “It was strange to me that my uncle was the one driving him, and my dad’s eyes were red and puffy. We ran to him. He put his arms around us and began walking us into the house. We were begging him to tell us. ‘Where is she?’ ‘Daddy, is Mommy OK?’ When we arrived inside, he sat us down and told us she had been killed in a car accident. I remember screaming at the top of
“It was open and fun, and I fell in love with it.” —Jessica Mills, Cape Coral teen on visiting Valerie’s House
There’s no getting around why these children are here.
my lungs. I screamed for so long. I walked from room to room, screaming. I don’t know how long it lasted before someone was able to get me to stop.
“I can’t tell you what those initial moments of finding out are like for every Valerie’s House child,” she added. “I can only tell you they happen. Words are uttered. Children cry. Tears stream. Lives are forever changed.”
Years after her mother’s death and now a successful adult, Melvin was still trying to cope when she decided that others in the same situation shouldn’t suffer alone. They should, in fact, be able to heal with others and move on as best as possible. With this in mind, she founded Valerie’s House in 2016, named for her mother and opened in the Dean Park Historic District in Fort Myers. The house was a one-year, rent-free gift of a friend. She opened another Valerie’s House in Naples in March.
The Fort Myers home on designated evenings is at first somber―there’s no getting around why these children are here― but as things unwind and the kids begin playing, the mood is less grim. The restored home is cheery. A wall of stuffed bears greets new visitors. The children separate into age groups to talk with peers, each group supervised by a social worker leading the talk, setting ground rules such as polite listening and that it’s OK to cry.
Melvin is assisted by a small army of adult volunteers, some working through their own grief. Janette L’Heureux is here, for example, because her 22-year-old son was killed in 2016. She does not share those details with the others, choosing instead to assist in the flow of the evening, “so that I might help others heal,” the Cape Coral woman says.
Anthony Bell is visiting Valerie’s House because his two kids lost a step-grandparent in January, a person very close to the children, Bell says. The grieving process and sharing with others in such situations has allowed his son and daughter to “start smiling again,” he says. “We try to keep moving forward.”
Melvin says premature death is more common than we imagine, with one in seven children losing a parent or sibling by age 20. Understandably, many don’t cope well. Yet there are those such as Jessica Mills, a Cape Coral teen whose mother died suddenly in 2015, who have found help in healing through Valerie’s House visits. “It’s part of the reason of who I am today,” she says. “It was open and fun, and I fell in love with it.”
Details are at valerieshouseswfl.org.
Angela Melvin (above) was 10 when her mother died. She started Valerie's House in 2016.
Photos and stuffed bears help children suffering loss to better cope with their grief.