Focused business leaders, large and small, have had to become nimble in 2020 as they strive to survive the changing world around them.
As the founder and CEO of a Southwest Florida nonprofit, reacting to 2020 has been no different. Like my business counterparts, our purpose is to reach people, engage them, build trust and provide value to their lives. In the case of Valerie’s House, the people we are engaging with are children and families grieving the death of someone they love. They need support so they may keep their family intact, their children strong and their daily lives moving forward.
How to adapt
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people earlier this year, Valerie’s House operations swiftly changed. Valerie’s House is a home away from home for families to grieve and heal together. A group support night can easily top 50 participants with parents, children and volunteers. Preventing isolation is the very reason Valerie’s House exists. I held back tears as we placed a sign on the front door that Friday in early March when we closed until further notice.
Within days of the CDC announcement, I called a meeting and asked our team to research everything we could on the safest and most effective way to conduct a grief support group over the internet. We chose a platform that was easy to manage no matter your technological background. Most importantly, it is safe and HIPAA compliant, meaning it has a heightened sense of security. Within two weeks, we had training for our group leaders, volunteers and staff. Emails and phone calls went out to 250 families about our next move. We promised them we would not leave them to grieve alone. Seventy percent of our children decided to try a virtual group and were grateful for the opportunity to stay connected during this anxious and scary time.
Sixty virtual groups a month have rolled on with few issues. Constant communication with our families is key. We learned that emails are not the best way to keep people up to date, as many are inundated, and some families do not regularly check their inbox. We created forms that could be sent as as a link to a mobile device, which included necessary waivers to sign, RSVP for group nights, opt-ins for activities and family profile updates. This was yet more training for our team, and we had to master it quickly.
As the leader of an organization with nine employees, I had to decide how to run Valerie’s House from my home. Virtual meetings became the norm. Tracking progress and keeping everyone on the same page was imperative. We hold virtual weekly department head meetings every Monday morning. Standing weekly meetings individually with the department heads is also key. We became better at spreadsheets and utilizing our software to run reports, track attendance, family calls and telehealth sessions. The time at home forced us to slow down and look at our processes again.
Be flexible within your organization
Predicting a hit to revenue, we created a “Budget B” in early March. We zeroed out line items that had anything to do with special events and accounted for a loss in grants as some foundations were also taking a hit. I called individual supporters close to Valerie’s House, those who have been to Valerie’s House and have seen what we do. Many of our supporters know the families that we have helped and are loyal friends of our organization. We are grateful for people who believe in us and are standing by us financially, even though it may be tough times on them too.
As a team, we have discussed other ways to help a grieving child that does not always require a group setting. These conversations led to the launch of a one-on-one mentoring program where we connect our volunteers with children individually for virtual calls and outings. We also know that some families need individualized counseling, but our community still lacks affordable mental health options. In response, we reallocated funds to hire one of our longtime group volunteers and clinical grief therapist, to come on board with Valerie’s House full-time.
One of the greatest areas of growth for me as a leader of an organization during this time, has been gaining the confidence to lead our team through a crisis. Valerie’s House was built to care for grieving people in person, give hugs to children crying, and big smiles to those who need to know someone cares about them. How long could we do this virtually, and when, if ever, would we be able to see the old Valerie’s House again? I had many sleepless nights and our staff was also very stressed. However, I decided that I would never let them see my worries. I asked for their input and told them, “I hear you,” as often as I could. I assured them we were going to get through this. I won’t say I didn’t have pushback. I did. Some on the team were unsure if virtual support groups would work. When it was time to open our doors back up again in August, some wondered how we could do it safely. At one point, I had to stand firm and let the team know, “I believe this is right for our families.”
What can you innovate
Today, as we are rounding out the month of September, we have been back hosting in-person groups for almost six weeks. Groups are limited in size for safe spacing, and we are all wearing face coverings. The children are happy to be back together. Virtual groups continue to run for families living out of state, caregivers who can’t make the drive to the house, or families preferring to stay at home for now. Some of our initial intakes for new families are also virtual, as we give a virtual tour of the house or play them a video. We would never have been offering these choices for communicating with families had a pandemic not happened. As far as internally, leadership meetings are also continuing to run virtually to bring staff together from the different Valerie’s House locations.
Some parts of Valerie’s House have gone virtual and stayed virtual. I’m not ready to say we are a better Valerie’s House now than we were in January 2020, because the pandemic is still impacting our way of helping people. But I am confident in saying we will be stronger and better off when this is all said and done. We didn’t freeze; we moved through this and learned what we were made of.
About the author
As the first and only organization in Southwest Florida with the sole mission of helping children grieve, Valerie’s House has helped more than 1,000 children and their families since opening its doors in 2016. The nonprofit provides a safe, comfortable place to heal following the death of a loved one. Valerie’s House offers support groups and other activities at their home in Fort Myers at 1762 Fowler Street and Naples at 819 Myrtle Terrace. The organization also holds group meetings at First United Methodist Church in Punta Gorda. Valerie’s House is a United Way partner agency and is fully supported by community donations that can be made online at www.valerieshouseswfl.org or by mail to Valerie’s House, Inc., P.O. Box 1955, Fort Myers, FL 33902.