By: Malcolm Mayhew
Almost six years ago, Natalie and Michael Gordon found themselves in a neonatal intensive care unit with their fragile twin babies. At 24 weeks and five days gestation, their daughter Lola and son Landry weighed less than two pounds each. They remained in the NICU for 130 days. At that time, there was no parent support program in place.
“We often found ourselves alone and broken during our journey,” Natalie Gordon says.
Four years later, Gordon met Fort Worth community volunteer, Lisa Grubbs, when she was interviewed for her current position as program facilitator for NICU Helping Hands.
Lisa and her husband, Randy Grubbs, a Fort Worth neonatologist, founded the Fort Worth-based nonprofit organization in 2010. NICU Helping Hands is an all-encompassing organization which provides families with comprehensive parent support and education before, during and after a NICU journey. In many cases, they help with funeral expenses. “I am so fortunate to work alongside her,” Gordon says. “Lisa’s giving heart that formed NICU Helping Hands has given thousands of families hope. It is often that hope that gets the family to the next day.”
In 2011 the organization launched Project NICU, a family support program available to area hospitals. From weekly meetups for parents and siblings to one-on-one support through a mentoring program to memory archiving, Project NICU focuses solely on the educational and emotional needs of the families of premature infants. The organization has never turned anyone away.
Grubbs also has put countless hours into the Angel Gown® program she founded in April 2013. This program converts donated wedding gowns into delicate burial gowns for bereaved families all across the United States. Each is sewn by one of 700 carefully chosen seamstresses, including Grubbs’ mother, Joy Rodriguez, who lives in Fayetteville, Tenn. “I lost count a long time ago on how many gowns I’ve made,” Rodriguez says. “I just hope the families can feel the love that each stitch represents. I intend to make them for the rest of my days.”
The response for the angel gowns has been somewhat overwhelming, Grubbs says. It began with 40 wedding dresses in her home closet and three seamstresses. From March through October last year alone, the organization processed 8,000 gowns in their local facility. Volunteers from everywhere helped. The organization had to put procedures in place and figure out shipping.
The growth was shocking, Grubbs says. “There was no stopping it. We had to make that “Oh, that’s a good idea” work. You have to understand that NICU Helping Hands began with me and one employee. We went from roughly 1,000 Facebook followers to 53,000 and millions of hits on our website a year. It’s interesting because nobody wanted to talk about babies dying before Janet St. James did a story on Channel 8 a little over a year ago,” Grubbs says. “The show went viral. Then, it became very evident that people needed to talk about babies dying.”
The NICU Helping Hands program has expanded from Baylor All-Saints to include Cook Children’s. The programs are not just for pre-term babies but also full-term babies who have to stay in the NICU.
The wedding dress collection for the Angel Gown® program starts again in September. Grubbs describes the process: “If you wanted to donate your wedding dress, I would tell you that on Sept. 1 at 8 a.m. you need to have your computer fired up and be sitting on our website, so when the donor interest form goes live, you are able to immediately fill it out with your information,” Grubbs explains. “We’re going to be sitting on our end watching those forms come in, and when we reach capacity, we’ll take those donor forms down again. If we don’t do that, it will turn into more than we can process.”
If a wedding gown donor is in Michigan, as an example, the organization matches the donor with the nearest seamstress. The seamstress ships the finished garment to the Fort Worth facility, where a quality control team checks every gown. They are wrapped in white tissue paper and placed in a box, with a card and angel pendant included. The boxes are labeled by the size and are packaged individually for a family or a requesting hospital.
Grubbs often dresses babies in the angel gowns. “It’s sad, but you have the privilege of being a part of that child being here on earth and then being ushered into eternity,” Grubbs says. “That’s a huge responsibility that our organization is willing to take on.”
For more information, visit nicuhelpinghands.org.
By: Malcolm Mayhew