After 25 years of grieving quietly and mostly alone for the mother she lost as a girl, in 2013, Fort Myers native Angela Melvin knew the time was finally right to figure out a way to help other children and families cope with the aftermath of loss. She opened the doors to her nonprofit Valerie’s House for Grieving Families in January 2016 with a strong vision and a meeting space on loan. It didn’t take long for families in crisis to find her.
When Melvin was 10, her mom, the eponymous Valerie, died in a car accident. “It was sudden, and shocking, and my father and little sister and I didn’t know any other families that had gone through such a tragedy,” Melvin says.
“We didn’t have an outlet for processing our grief and connecting with people who were going through this.”
In fact, Melvin didn’t even know such places existed until, working as a TV reporter after college, she came across and Hearts & Hope center in West Palm Beach. She signed up to volunteer and “spent the first day just sitting and crying in the center,” she remembers. “All those feelings came flooding back and I couldn’t help wondering what it would have done for my family, to have had something like this.”
In 2013, Melvin found herself living back in Fort Myers, where her mother had died 25 years earlier. “I was looking around to see what was available to children, thinking I would mentor someone. I realized there still wasn’t anything. And I thought that was crazy—all these years later there wasn’t an organization that could provide stability” to kids and families in need of bereavement services. She set up a meeting with the executive director of Hearts & Hope to figure out what she needed to do to set up a center of her own.
Slowly—she was working full-time then—Melvin began visiting other centers around the country, researching the need in her surrounding community of Lee and Collier counties, and putting together a business plan. A property owner lent her a house to use as a home base, and three years after she’d first had the idea, she welcomed 20 kids to Valerie’s House for support and counseling. A year and a half later, the center is serving 100 kids and their families, and has expanded into Naples and a local school. Melvin recently left the Uncommon Friends Foundation to devote herself exclusively to the further development of Valerie’s House.
“Our most pressing issue is that we need a house of our own,” says Melvin. The house she’d been loaned is currently up for sale, and Melvin hopes to find a bigger space to meet the needs of her ever-growing “family,” to be funded in part by a $50,000 grant Valerie’s House received this year. She’s also aiming to supplement her two full-time staffers and various volunteers with some part-time therapists. She also hopes to strengthen budding partnerships with other nonprofits that provide things like groceries to food-insecure families and counseling to kids who’ve lost someone to drunk driving.