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Valerie’s House to hold in-person support sessions Aug. 3

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Jul 30, 2020

Although Valerie’s House has continued its support groups during the COVID-19 pandemic on a virtual basis, families shared their desire to go back to in-person, which will begin on Monday, Aug. 3.

Valerie’s House is a nonprofit organization, whose sole purpose is to help children who are grieving a significant loss in their life. Since opening in 2016, the organization has helped more than 1,000 children and their families.

Before COVID-19 spread through the area, in-person grief support groups were held twice a month, which included playtime, a potluck meal and the opportunity for children to be paired with others of their own age to identify, express and process their grief. The adults also have an opportunity to share their grief in a separate group.

Valerie’s House Founder and CEO Angela Melvin said on March 29 they went virtual with their support groups and learned everything they could on how to run groups in a chat room like Atmosphere. During the virtual support programs, the nonprofit organization had 50 to 60 percent participation from the 300 active members of Valerie’s House.

“Although the virtual groups have allowed us to stay connected and allowed the program to continue, for many families it is not nearly enough and not the same,” Melvin said.

Sixty-seven children have joined the Valerie’s House program since April 1, including children who lost a family member to the virus in the past 90 days.

“Death does not stop. It has only increased. Statistically one out of every 13 children in our region will lose a parent before 16,” she said, according to the Department of Health.

She said car accidents and health issues, such as cancer or a heart attack, do not stop.

“We have to adjust. Shutting down and staying closed and waiting for this to go away is a disservice to the community. We exist to bring comfort and peace and a sense of community to grieving and you do that in person,” Melvin said

The families of Valerie’s House were asked to take a survey, which indicated 80 percent wanted to return to meeting face-to-face.

“The face-to-face, even with face covering and only seeing each other’s eyes, without a doubt, is so much more impactful with someone grieving and in pain,” Melvin said.

Melvin said they continued to see some of the kids and families individually.

“Even with the measures that we have in place, it lights you up to be in person with someone to see them and hear their voice and not have to worry about technology,” she said.

Melvin said they explored different procedures that they will take to make everyone safe, distanced and feeling comfortable as they return to Valerie’s House.

In addition to face coverings and social distancing, temperature checks of each person will be taken, as well as a form that each person has to sign stating they have not been ill, or associated with anyone who has had COVID-19.

Melvin said they have created face coverings, have super hero face masks, and clear face coverings, which they hope will make the children feel comfortable. Children will also receive a face covering at their first meeting, which they can decorate in honor of their loved one.

“The thought is that they will accept it and understand it’s for safety,” she said.

In addition, Melvin said they have gone through the house and marked up the rooms to have everyone six feet from each other. Surfaces will be cleaned each night and a deep cleaning will be done weekly by a professional company.

“We have these beautiful homes, one in Fort Myers and Naples, that are full of warmth, teddy bears and love. If you walk into our house right now, you still feel that way,” she said.

The support group programs will continue to use art, music and journaling, as well as being there for one another, which is the most important thing.

“We no longer have dinner, or playtime that we used to have. Instead they will go into their group support rooms,” Melvin said.

She said they have some fun things planned for the kids to make them feel comfortable and at home, such as being escorted by therapy dogs.

There will be 12 different groups running twice a month once they reopen in August.

“Every night of the week we will have a different Valerie’s House group running,” Melvin said.

The virtual option will remain available for those families that want to continue meeting online.

To accommodate the expanded schedule, Melvin said they have hired two full-time licensed mental health counselors. Now there are 10 employees, including three licensed clinicians.

“We have a staff of eight full-time people dedicated to kids,” she said.

Those interested in learning more about Valerie’s House, or enrolling in the programs are asked to visit www.valerishouseswfl.org and fill out the inquiry form. One of the family support coordinators will do a Zoom call with the individual and go through a virtual intake process to introduce them to Valerie’s House.

Melvin said from there the family can start attending the programs the following week.

“We want people to know there is a place to go. We are doing it safely. They don’t have to stay in their homes if they don’t want to. We are open and here for them,” she said, adding that it will provide children and families with the opportunity to meet others that are also grieving and feeling sad.

The core of Valerie’s House mission is to let children know there are others like them that are going through the same grieving process.

There is no cost to the families to utilize Valerie’s House.

“They are welcome here. We never want a family to have to think about the cost of therapy,” Melvin said.

Valerie’s House is at 1762 Fowler Street in Fort Myers and 819 Myrtle Terrace in Naples. Families can also reach out to Program Director Amy Strom at (239) 841-9186, or email amy@valerieshouseswfl.org.