Valerie’s House at The Chadbourne Foundation Home in Pensacola is shining a light on a sensitive subject, offering support, compassion and healing to children who have experienced the death of a loved one. Under the leadership of Crista Brandt and Jenni Elzweig, Valerie’s House is a sanctuary for grieving families, providing peer-to-peer support services that make a profound difference in the lives of those who need it most.
Turning tragedy into a gift
Brandt, Northwest Florida regional director, understands the depths of grief all too well. She tragically lost her mother to cancer when Brandt was just 11 years old. However, rather than allowing this tragedy to define her, Brandt’s purpose is to turn her own pain into someone else’s gift.
“I am here to help the ‘me’s’ of today, so they know they are not alone in their grief,” she said.
Her dedication to launching the Valerie’s House Pensacola location stems from her commitment to helping children navigate the various stages of grief through healthy outlets.
The peer-to-peer support model helps children connect and build bonds with others their age who are having similar experiences. The support groups provide children the opportunity to decrease isolation, recognize their normal feelings of grief and learn safe and effective ways to manage their difficult emotions. It’s a welcoming community where individuals can come together, share and mentor each other through their grief.
Importance of connection
Children experiencing grief need to feel connected to others who understand their struggles and can relate to their unique challenges. Most children don’t have others in their immediate circle who have suffered the devastating loss of a parent, sibling or close family member. Valerie’s House provides a vital support network.
“We serve the entire family,” said Brandt.
Caregivers meet while the children participate in age-specific peer groups, offering mutual support and insight into understanding grief from a child’s perspective. Peer-to-peer support is a particularly helpful tool for anyone who struggles to express their emotions, which is essential for healthy grief processing.
A place for healing and fun
Valerie’s House is more than just a place for healing; it’s a place for fun and celebration too. There, children engage in activities that help them process their trauma in a fun and engaging way.
Emma, aged 12, shared how Valerie’s House helps her.
“I like the fact that I can know and feel like I’m not alone or the only kid my age that has had a big loss like I have,” she said. “And we have super fun activities that help with trauma processing, and it doesn’t even feel like that’s what we are doing because we do it in a fun way.”
Jenni Elzweig, program manager, is a former fine arts teacher who brings a unique blend of compassion and creativity to her role. Elzweig has a long history of helping those who are grieving. Her journey began as a hospice respite provider right out of high school, and she understands the profound impact of loss firsthand, having lost her father to a stroke when she was a young adult.
All services are free of charge
Services are offered at no cost to the family, thanks to the generous support of grants and donations. The annual costs of approximately $2,500 for a family with one child cover essential resources, including grief books, peer-to-peer support group dinners, family events, volunteer training, supplies and related expenses.
Valerie’s House is the first nonprofit in the region solely dedicated to helping children and families navigate the loss of a loved one together. With all programming and funds dedicated to this mission, the organization makes a profound impact on the lives of grieving families. Anyone interested in donating items, contributing funding, providing dinner or volunteering can visit valerieshouse.org/pensacola.
Elzweig shared that they will soon introduce “Nourish,” unique salon-style dinner events held at the house. Look for upcoming details on an extraordinary fundraising experience unique to the Pensacola community.
Valerie’s House offers the vital reminder that no child needs to face loss alone. Their commitment to providing grief support services empowers children and families to navigate a world where grief can feel isolating.
Childhood grief costs the individual and society
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study indicates the death of a sibling or parent as one of the most developmentally disruptive and traumatic experience a child can experience.
Over 30% of the children in Florida’s juvenile detention system suffered the loss of a parent or sibling to death as tracked by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Children who have lost a parent, without the support of others and the tools to know how to grieve, are more susceptible to risk-taking and self-harming behaviors, drugs, criminal activity and other disorders to cope with their grief.
It is estimated that addiction costs the United States $120 billion annually in lost productivity. Children who experience a childhood loss of a loved one are five times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and five times more likely to struggle with addiction.
Local Schools feel the impact. Children who are grieving are twice as likely to see their grades drop, lose memory and concentration, experience lower attendance as well as suffer from emotional or angry outbursts during the school day. Many of these incidents are seen as a discipline problem, rather than a byproduct of grief.
WANT TO HELP?
What: Valerie’s House Pensacola
How: Donate or volunteer
More information: valerieshouse.org/pensacola