Valerie’s House shuts down in-person services after volunteer dies of COVID-19

Concern for the spread of the coronavirus is the reason a Southwest Florida support group for children who have lost a parent is shutting down in-person gatherings. This comes as a volunteer for this support group died of COVID-19 over the weekend. It also comes at a time when the need for this service is growing.

Valerie’s House in Fort Myers serves as a safe space for children and families who have experienced loss. It has canceled all support groups Monday after volunteer Jeremy Feraci, 40, died of COVID-19 this past weekend.

“He was one of the best,” CEO Angela Melvin said. “We very much care for him, and he made such an impact on our children.”

Feraci had two children of his own, and he was no stranger to grief either, since his father died when he was young.

“He really felt a connection to our kids and families,” Melvin said. “He was a mentor to a little boy who we have to find the words now to tell that his mentor has also died.”

Valeri’s House told us Feraci had not been vaccinated for COVID-19.

“We are told he struggled with that decision to get the vaccine or not get the vaccine,” Melvin said. “It’s now too late for him.”

Other volunteers at Valerie’s House have a personal connection to the space they provide for others.

“About two and a half years ago my husband passed away, and my five kids and I started coming for grief support,” said Jessica Schuchard, who is an employee at Valerie’s House.

Schuchard needed Valerie’s House, and now, she works there. Her kids still need the support groups and look forward to their safe place.

“My kids go to school, and they are one of a few kids that don’t have a parent in their life, and they struggle with that,” Schuchard said. “So coming here, they get to be normal kids, and most of the kids here have a similar experience.”

CEO Angela Melvin told us several more families have called Valerie’s House with similar stories to Feraci’s. “They also shared with us that their loved one was not vaccinated,” she said.

“I think we have a handful of families that their loved one died from COVID during the pandemic a year ago,” Melvin said. “I’m talking about maybe three or four, so the fact that we received three or four in one week is causing major concern.”

With in-person meetings shut down at this time, Schuchard told us her is worried for kids who need the support. She hopes COVID-19 numbers and deaths come down soon, so they can continue to provide a safe space for parents and children.

“We’ve already experienced this last year when initially everything went virtual, and it was really hard at first because coming here gives you that sense of community,” Schuchard said.

Valerie’s House will still offer individual, onsite counseling and is considering virtual options for support groups. Melvin says all staff and volunteers are required to be vaccinated when groups resume.

Moving forward, Valerie’s House will require all new volunteers and staff members are vaccinated for COVID-19.

“We live in this world of grief and loss,” Schuchard said. “My thought is let’s do everything we can to prevent this for other families.”

Reporter:Breana Ross
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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