Valerie’s House celebrates 5th anniversary
Organization’s ‘Forever Home’ in the works
An organization that began in Fort Myers to help children and their families heal together after the death of a loved one is celebrating its fifth anniversary.
Angela Melvin, the founder & CEO of Valerie’s House, said although she has been “so in the moment” of helping the organization grow and reach more kids, the five year anniversary kind of all of a sudden arrived.
“I want to celebrate it because it’s something I want everyone who has helped me get to this place be very proud of being a part of this,” she said. “We have risen. We are no longer a little bird in a nest. We are flying on our own. We are still very young and I recognize it, too. We are growing up. We still have a long way to go and a lot of things to learn, but I’m wanting to pause and recognize (the anniversary).”
Five years ago, Melvin wanted to help children like she once was — a child who lost a parent, brother or sister and is feeling alone in his or her grief. Melvin’s mother, Valerie was 31 years old when she lost her life in an automobile accident, leaving behind a husband and two small children, including then 10-year-old Angela.
Melvin said she wanted to give those children, and parents, who do not have the words to say how they are feeling, or what to say, a voice.
“The main goal was to provide a place where kids could come together. I knew if we could get them together they could help each other more,” she said.
In January 2016, Valerie’s House began in Fort Myers, in a home that Steven Bienko gave to Melvin. She said after Bienko heard her speak, he shared that he had a house zoned commercial, which he was only occupying the upstairs.
“He didn’t need the downstairs part and was willing to clear it out,” Melvin said. “I wanted it to be a cozy, homey house. I wanted an actual house, a home away from home.”
That actual house, she felt would give children a chance, providing them the comfort of a home.
Twenty children and their caregivers were present when Valerie’s House first opened its doors on the evening of Jan. 11, 2016. The organization has grown since to help more than 1,000 children since its inception and has expanded to three locations, including Naples and Punta Gorda.
Valerie’s House is now in its second home, an old historic house built in 1910 with big porches, shady trees outside with picnic tables, bedrooms and a big dinning room.
“We always have dinner first. It’s like walking into a Thanksgiving day. You come in and see friends, have dinner together, break bread together, have a meal, play and hang out and then go into grief support groups. We turned the bedrooms into special rooms that are all decorated for appropriate ages,” Melvin said.
The house, which is 2,500 square feet, has already been outgrown.
“We are celebrating this fifth year . . . we will be breaking ground before the end of the year on a new home we are going to build from the ground up. It’s a nice piece of property given to us by the city of Fort Myers,” Melvin said.
The house will be located on an acre of land off Colonial Boulevard and Veronica S. Shoemaker Boulevard in Fort Myers.
“It’s in a convenient location. A third to half of our families come from Cape Coral. This house is going to be near Colonial and Plantation. They can come directly from the bridge and get over there in the evenings. It’s not too far from 1-75,” she said, which will also benefit families traveling from Port Charlotte, Bonita Springs and Lehigh Acres.
The new home, Melvin has coined “our Forever Home” because when she closes her eyes her dream of always having a place for grieving families beyond her lifetime comes into view.
“They would still have this place that they could call their own and belong to the grieving families, a safe place, even if it’s run by volunteers. The house and space is theirs,” Melvin said.
The preliminary design renderings has the home at about 7,000 square feet, which she said they desperately need.
“We have 200 to 300 children coming to Valerie’s House on a monthly basis with their parents. With social distancing and COVID, it has impacted how we can have people come to our house,” Melvin said.
The home will have a dining room, living room, bedrooms, a big back porch and big area to play, a fireplace and open windows to provide a loving homey feel with great colors.
That homey feeling is where it all starts, Melvin said, because with grief and getting children to talk about their grief, or something bad that has happened to them, they have to feel they can trust you and are in a safe place, emotionally safe.
“Otherwise they are not going to open up about how they feel. The setting is important for children. This is a place I can begin to feel like myself,” she said is the purpose of Valerie’s House.
For example, the current house has a graffiti-decorated teen room with big bold letters saying “Not Alone.”
“To have that written big and bold inside their support room is a sign to them that this is not your typical support group,” Melvin said.
The organization is celebrating its fifth anniversary by asking people in the community to share their “Then and Now” stories of how they were impacted by Valerie’s House either as a family that went through the organization, or a volunteer who provided a helping hand.
Those who wish to share are asked to use the hashtag #VHTurns5 on social media channels, or by emailing Valerie’s House Communications Coordinator Alexa Nargi at Alexa@valerieshouse.org.
“Grieving children can do big things. You don’t have to be a statistic because you lost your mom, or dad, when you were a child. We can help you,” Melvin said.
There are many ways for the community to get involved with Valerie’s House. For starters, Melvin said she is looking for people who have experienced a loss when they were a child.
“We have a mentoring program now where we want to connect children with adults that have made it through,” she said, to show that there is hope.
She asks that individuals who are interested to reach out to her at email@example.com.
As a nonprofit, a grassroots, locally born organization, they are also looking for financial supporters and donors.
“We were born and raised here and it goes directly to the kids and the programs. If you are in a position to give back financially, consider giving back to Valerie’s House. Grief is not going anywhere. My job will never end. It’s an ongoing ministry for providing care to those in need,” she said.
According to the 2020 Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, one in nine children in Florida are predicted to loose a parent, or sibling, before they turn 21 years old.
Individuals can also help Valerie’s House build its “forever home.” Melvin said there are opportunities for the community to name a room after someone they have lost.
“This will be a forever legacy with our community,” she said of Valerie’s House.
For more information about Valerie’s House, visit www.valerieshouse.org.