How we support children at Valerie's House

Andy McNiel
Andy McNiel is a consultant with Valerie’s House.

Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series of articles on partner agencies that benefit from contributions through the United Way Campaign, which continues through February, 2019. A different non-profit agency providing services to people in need throughout Southwest Florida will be featured until the end of the campaign. Today: Valerie's House, which has a mission to lovingly support children who have lost a parent or a sibling. 

At Valerie’s House, we are often asked, in the wake of tragedy, “How do we support and care for our children?” After all, children are watching and being impacted by the things they are seeing and hearing.

Valerie’s House was founded in 2015 by Angela Melvin, inspired by the loss of her own mother, to bring support and resources to children who have lost a parent or sibling.

Programs are designed to give children and their families a safe place to share, grieve, and grow. Group sessions are held twice a month and include activities that help identify grief related emotions and work through the loss together.

Children will know other children like them, heal together and learn loss doesn't have to limit their dreams. Valerie's House also supports parents and caregivers in their own groups as they cope with the loss of a spouse or child. We provide our programs at no cost to the family.

Our vision is that no child will grieve alone. 

A phrase we have heard often when care for children is discussed after a tragedy is that “children are resilient.” Though it might be well-intentioned to assign resiliency to children, the fact is that it is not true. Children are not resilient.

The truth is children are vulnerable. The things that happen to them and what they witness intrude upon them and impact them. Their minds are not fully developed. They are taking in the world around them, good and bad. They are being shaped by the things they see, hear, and experience. What children experience and the support they receive has a direct impact on their health now and as they grow into adulthood.

With this in mind, how do we comfort children and help children feel safe after a public tragedy? First, they need our time and attention. If you have children in your home, dedicate special time with them to play or share a fun activity. Let them have a choice about what you do together.

Spend time with children on their terms, not just your terms. This boosts their self-confidence. Quite often, children will share openly about their feelings during these interactions. Also, when we are spending time with our children and giving them our undivided attention, we will see opportunities to encourage and reassure them.

Children who have one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent or caregiver are more likely to be resilient. A positive relationship with at least one caring adult who a child trusts and feels love bolsters healthy growth and development, buffering against the impact of stress on children’s development.

Second, turn off the television and 24-hour news of a public tragedy. This is not to be mistaken as “hiding” the truth from your children. Children need to know the truth, and it is best if they hear it from a caring adult. It is OK to talk to your children about the tragedy and ask their feelings about it. But there is no need to dwell on it or bombard them with news reports or conversations about it.

Third, meet them where they are. When you are spending time with your children, check in with them periodically. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them what they have seen or heard. Let them know they can ask you any question. Limit the amount of details you share, focusing on the details they express to you.

The truth is that helping children grow into healthy adults is a process, not a given. Central to a healthy child is at least one stable and committed adult. Children need our help to feel safe after a public tragedy. Think about the children you have in your life and ask yourself, “What am I doing to help them feel safe and grow in healthy ways?”

For more information on supporting children during tragedy and or grief, please contact Valerie’s House at

Valerie’s House is one of 96 United Way Partner Agencies. Your dollars make a big difference in the lives of thousands of people in our community. Visit us at to explore more or safely make a donation.

Andy McNiel is a consultant with Valerie’s House.