Naples Winter Wine Festival to benefit Valerie’s House, bereaved children

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The Naples Winter Wine Festival kicks off this week, and 2023 focused on raising money to support children’s mental health. One of those groups helping Southwest Florida kids is Valerie’s House, a nonprofit that provides support for children grieving the death of a loved one.

The first things you notice when you walk into Valerie’s House at 819 Myrtle Terrace in Naples are the bright colors and a sprawling paper tree.

Mackenzie Francois added a green leaf and explained what it represented.

“All the kids come, and they write the loved one’s name on a leaf,” Mackenzie said. Her own leaf is in remembrance of her mother.

“It says ‘love you,’ and I wrote the letters of the song that she and I would sing when I was a kid,” Mackenzie said.

The song is “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion. When Mackenzie was 16, her mom suffered a stroke and died months later. Not only did Mackenzie lose the rock in her life, but she also had to move to Southwest Florida from the east coast to live with distant cousins, then enroll in a new school and start over.

Mackenzie describes that time as a blur.

“It was never, like, sitting down and processing, ‘OK, this is what’s happening; this is how we have to move on from this,'” Mackenzie said. “I don’t think that my body really or my mind processed how I was feeling at the time, and so I was kind of on autopilot.”

One month after her mom died, we went into COVID-19 lockdown and school went online.

“It was kind of just me being alone and grieving alone,” Mackenzie said. “And when we went back to school, my counselor told me about Valerie’s House.”

Mackenzie Francois and Sarah Andrus at Valerie’s House. Credit: WINK News

Sarah Andrus is the outreach director at Valerie’s House, which works with bereaved children from 4 to 18.

“We can’t make mom or dad come back, but we can give them ways to still connect and express what they’re thinking and feeling,” Andrus said.

When Hurricane Ian hit, it took an already vulnerable group and ripped away the little sense of security they had left.

“The other layer of the damage, of just personal belongings that belonged to someone who died also being gone and taken away in the flooding and in the damage from the storm… it’s devastating,” Andrus said. “We had some of our caregivers, some of our moms, express [that] ‘We feel like our grief was taken away from us; now we can’t even grieve because we have to rebuild our home or figure out insurance.'”

An estimated 7,000 children in Collier County are grieving the loss of either a parent or sibling, and all those children have memories of their loved ones.

“Lives are changed here,” Mackenzie said. “Every single kid that’s ever walked through these doors… they never left feeling the way they did when they entered; they always left with a smile on their face, maybe a few tears.”

For Mackenzie, Valerie’s House became a home away from home that rooted her.

“I’ve met very wonderful people who helped me, who I would honestly, like, owe them my life,” Mackenzie said.

That’s why the now-college freshman still comes back to volunteer.

WINK News and Gulfshore Life are sponsors of the Naples Winter Wine Festival.

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