Va­lerie’s House

Where kids grieve and re­cover from loss, among friends

Gulf & Main - - Gulf & Main - BY CRAIG GAR­RETT

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.

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