It’s something no parent should have to face.The death of a young child brings unprecedented grief on the heels of unprecedented joy.But some parents find relief in philanthropy, using the lessons learned for a positive purpose.Meet three families who turned their sorrow into action, helping to heal or even prevent the pain of others.
For Stefanie Smith, getting pregnant hadn’t been an easy feat, so to learn that she was pregnant with twins in 2009 was an exciting reward. But at a routine checkup, just 24 weeks into her pregnancy, she was shocked to learn that she was showing symptoms of preterm labor. Ordered to bedrest, she hoped that her twins would stay put for several more weeks of safe growth.But as complications persisted, they were born the next week – 15 weeks early.
With her husband, Karl, Stefanie kept vigil in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where the twins, Jack and Abigail, lay in nests of tube and wire. Together, they weighed just over three pounds and needed help with everything from breathing to digesting. Despite ‘round-the-clock care and several encouraging developments, Abby slipped away after nearly two weeks. Jack followed 12 days later.
That was July. By September, Stefanie says, they had a plan to create a foundation in the twins’ honor.
“It gave us something to focus on,” she says. “And we wanted to help parents who were going to be where we had been.”
With backgrounds in business and event-planning, and the help of friends in the legal and nonprofit fields, they were able to get the Jack & Abby Neonatal Foundation smoothly off the ground. Through a variety of fundraising events, they are able to help other NICU parents with unexpected expenses like preemie clothing, breast pumps and hotel stays near the hospital. Their current goal is to fund a room at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Guest House that is specifically for NICU families.
“So many of the parents in that NICU come from rural areas where there isn’t that level of care,” Stefanie says. “That’s a long drive to make when you want to spend every minute you can with your babies.”
In addition to making the NICU experience more bearable, Stefanie says, she hopes the work of the foundation will prevent it altogether for some families.
“I really want people to be educated about the signs of preterm labor,” she says. “Women need to know what to look for, and to feel okay about calling their doctor when something’s not right.”
The year after the twins’ birth, Stefanie and Karl welcomed a son, Matthew – and again found themselves in the NICU.
“He was just four weeks early,” says Stefanie, “and there was nothing life-threatening. That stay went more like we had hoped the first one would.”
Stefanie says that she will raise Matthew to know the siblings who came before him: Jack, who she describes as “laid-back and easygoing,” and Abby, who was “feisty, a fighter.”
“I want him to understand who they were,” she says, “and why this foundation exists.”
Educating Community About Vehicle Safety
It was a sunny May afternoon in 2005 when the lives of the Bryant family changed forever. A contractor had come to their Glen Allen home to give an estimate on some work to be done, leaving his truck in the driveway while he walked next door to give another estimate there. As Meredyth Bryant and her children played in their front yard, the contractor returned to his truck and immediately began to reverse. He didn’t see that Annabelle, age 2, was playing behind the vehicle. Meredyth couldn’t get to her in time.
“That is something no mother should have to see,” says Meredyth.
By autumn of that year, Meredyth says, her friend Vanessa had come up with a way to honor Annabelle’s memory. By committing acts of kindness in their community, they could keep the spirit of sweet-natured Annabelle alive. With dozens of friends and family members ready to help, they started with food deliveries to local fire and rescue departments – including the one that responded to the accident.
“We had so many people willing to help,” Meredyth says, “and after a while we thought, ‘Why not use this energy to keep this from happening to someone else?’”
In the years since, Annabelle’s Angels has focused on vehicle safety, talking to preschoolers about staying away from parked cars and advocating for higher safety standards. Last year, Meredyth testified before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recommend a requirement for backup cameras in trucks and vans.
“It’s great to see commercials where car Manufacturers are showing those,” she says.
“They were unheard of just a few years ago.”
Retrofitting an existing vehicle with a rear camera can be a costly and complicated feat, but Annabelle’s Angels offers a more affordable compromise. A rear-view safety lens, which broadens the view so that small obstacles are visible, costs just twenty dollars at annabellesangels.net.
“That’s a really easy, quick way to reduce your blind spot,” says Meredyth. “And it can make all the difference.”
Meredyth says the reward for her is when grateful parents thank her for sharing her story and what she’s learned about safety.
“People don’t realize how often it happens, or how easily it happens,” she says.
“And it’s completely preventable.”
In January of 2009, Ashland residents Roger and Rachel Reynolds had a healthy 3-year-old daughter named Charlotte Jennie (CJ). When Charlotte began complaining of headaches, they scheduled a trip to the pediatrician. By the end of that horrible day, Roger and Rachel were looking at a CT scan that revealed an orange-sized tumor in their daughter’s brain.
Over the next several months, there were multiple surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, and physical and occupational therapies to help Charlotte regain the skills she lost as her brain came under attack.They even traveled to Texas to pursue care from a team that specializes in Charlotte’s rare form of cancer. After each surgery or procedure, Charlotte gave her parents a thumbs-up as a reassuring gesture.
In November, the Reynolds family learned they were out of options; nothing seemed to stop the tumor from growing. They resolved to make their sweet daughter as happy And comfortable as she could be, taking a memorable Make-a-Wish trip to Disney World while she was still able to enjoy it.She died at home a few weeks later, just under a year after her diagnosis.
Rachel says the idea to establish CJ’s Thumbs Up Foundation came to them well before Charlotte’s death, and was inspired by the kindness of friends and acquaintances who offered meals, gas money, and other ways to lighten their load.
“We felt so supported through the whole process,” she says. “I said to a counselor, ‘When we get beyond this, I want to do something with it. We need to find a way to give back.’”
In two years, CJSTUF has helped more than 65 families of children who have life-threatening illnesses. They have given more than $30,000 to help with various expenses that arise during prolonged illness and hospitalization.
“What sets us apart is that we aren’t actually trying to fix the big problem,” Rachel says. “We aren’t attempting to Cure cancer. We just want to make a bad situation more bearable.”
Rachel and Roger kept their friends and family updated through a blog that detailed Charlotte’s treatments, travel plans, setbacks, and successes. Rachel says the writing was therapeutic, and she went on to write a book about her experience. Four Seasons for Charlotte was released in May, telling the story of Charlotte’s short life and the family’s experience during that fi nal year.
CJSTUF hosts fundraisers throughout the year, including an art auction set for October. Rachel says the long-term goal is to expand their services from helping local families to helping families across the nation.
“The parents we’ve helped are so grateful,” she says. “They tell us, ‘You have no idea how much this means.’ But really, we do.”