Warm Wishes: Dedicated volunteers make infant quilts for struggling babies

For eight years, she tried for a baby of her own. Hoping to refocus after a failed round of in vitro fertilization attempts, Sunnyvale resident Heather Yamagata became involved in a volunteer program she thought would help. The program creates baby quilts for at-risk newborns.

“I thought making a blanket for one of these babies that absolutely needs it more than anyone else would give me some hope that maybe one day I’d have my own baby,” Yamagata said.

Yamagata, 29, completed one nine-patch flannel blanket during the four months she was involved in the program sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I’m kind of a procrastinator,” she joked. Nevertheless, her blanket helped the Blankets for Babies cause, allowing at least one baby in newborn intensive care to have a little bit of color and comfort in what otherwise would have been the cold, sterile environment of an incubator.

Shortly after starting her blanket, Yamagata discovered a second round of in vitro had worked. Now in her second trimester, she looks forward to having her own baby but said, “Being born early could happen to my baby, and I would want someone to help me and care for me.” She added, “To have everyone making these blankets for people they don’t even know–that’s just amazing.”

The Blankets for Babies program enlists volunteers from all over the Bay Area to create undersized baby blankets for the premature babies that pass through intensive care. Each of the blankets is unique, of varying thickness, patterns and textures depending on the creator. Many of the volunteers come from the Los Altos Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are eight wards within the Los Altos Stake, each of which is made up of several hundred members. The church adopted the project as this year’s community outreach activity, beginning in late January.

Cupertino native Melanie De Luca is a church member.

She was nearing the end of a complicated pregnancy when her doctor urged her, nearly six weeks early, to have a Cesarean section rather than carrying the pregnancy to term. Her baby, Casey, was born with the typical problems that plague premature babies, including an underdeveloped respiratory system that made it difficult for him to breathe without medical assistance. For nine days, Melanie and her husband Moe watched in agony as Casey remained confined to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford.

The only thing that brought them comfort was the 36-inch square flannel blanket that, without explanation, accompanied Casey in his incubator. “They didn’t even explain to me exactly where the blanket came from,” said De Luca, 43. “They just said, ‘This is your blanket; it’s here for you to keep.'”

Nine months later, Casey is a healthy, happy baby boy. His blanket, a flannel patchwork of colorful cars and trucks, remains one of his most prized keepsakes. Melanie De Luca is thankful the blanket was given to Casey to help him through his transition into the world.

“When people have new babies, there are so many things to worry about,” De Luca said. “When your baby is in intensive care, you’re not able to make them cozy and warm and all the things that you’d like to do with a new baby. This is a nice way to help transition babies who don’t get all those things right away.”

De Luca was fortunate to live near the hospital. A current resident of Mountain View, she grew up in Cupertino, where her parents still live. No matter where she was, she was never more than a short car ride away from Casey while he was kept in intensive care. Other parents were not so lucky. De Luca recalled one mother in particular whose baby had been in the NICU for more than three months. The mother commuted from her home in San Luis Obispo on weekends to spend time with her child.

“She’d spend the whole weekend there–night, day, everything–and then she’d have to go home,” De Luca said. She also recalled how the mother would put her baby’s blanket under her shirt so that the baby would have its mother’s scent throughout the week. Without the Blankets for Babies program, absentee mothers would not have that opportunity to bond with their children.

Over the course of nine months, Blankets for Babies members created more than 1,000 blankets for the babies who passed through the NICU. More than 230 of those were made by the women of the church’s El Camino Branch, most of whom do not own sewing machines. Another 137 blankets were made by members of De Luca’s own ward.

“I didn’t know where the blankets were coming from, and then I found out that people from my church were donating some,” said De Luca. “It really was sweet, and it was something that the babies–and the parents of the babies–really appreciated.”

Jean Callister was designated the coordinator for the Blankets for Babies project within the Heritage Oaks Ward. Her job was to oversee blanket making, and to publicize the project so that as many people as possible could be involved. Though excited about the project, Callister was at first overwhelmed.

“I’m not a knitter, I don’t sew and I wondered at the time, ‘Why in the world would they choose me to oversee this?'” she said. Her undeniable enthusiasm was the reason. Over the course of the stake’s program, which officially lasted until late September, Callister herself completed three blankets and purchased a fourth to donate.

The Los Altos Stake’s community outreach program officially ended on Sept. 23 when volunteers gathered to collect the final batch of blankets and watch a video detailing the program and its benefits to babies in intensive care. However, Callister is confident the program is far from over.

“There’s an ongoing need,” she said. “I know the ladies are not going to stop making quilts just because our program came to an end.”

This piece originally appeared in The Sunnyvale Sun.

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