TWO-YEAR-olds at Children and Company Preschool dipped their hands in paint two weeks ago and left handprints on 15 fabric squares. The squares - along with about 1,000 others collected from schools and businesses - will be quilted together to make blankets for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) around Maryland.
The activity was part of the Caring Hands project sponsored by Spenser's Hope, a nonprofit organization that offers information and support to families experiencing early labor and premature birth. The group, which has collected handprints for the past two years, has donated more than 100 quilts to Howard County General Hospital's NICU.
"We thought it would be a good way to raise awareness of prematurity in the community," said Wilde Lake resident Gretchen Miller, the group's co-founder. "It's a way to bring the community together and to support parents during their baby's stay at the hospital."
The project's goal is to collect 10,000 squares imprinted with the hands of children and adults to make to more than 3,000 quilts for NICUs.
Spenser's Hope was founded in 2001 by Miller and her husband, Jeff Pincus. Miller and Pincus lost their second child, Spenser, in April 2001. He was born at 23 weeks and lived for nine days.
"When we were going through this [loss], we really had to hunt down information," Miller said. "A lot of it was outdated or was not in-depth enough. It's such an emotional time, sometimes we couldn't remember what the doctor said. We wanted all the information to be in one spot so that people can read it when they are ready to absorb it. Our prime objective is to provide information and comfort people."
The couple have gathered information about early labor and premature birth from more than 50 sources, including the March of Dimes, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association.
Laura Sheehan of Sykesville is grateful for the resources she found at Spenser's Hope. Sheehan lost her premature daughter in February 2002.
"When you go through something like this, you feel isolated. People don't know how to approach you. It's important that people are aware that this does happen - and there is a place to turn," Sheehan said. "It makes things a lot easier to know someone went through the exact same thing and understands."
Sheehan, who is pregnant, works for Enterprise Mortgage Corp. in Columbia, which donated about 70 handprints to the Caring Hands project.
Gretchen Miller plans to speak at the March of Dimes Baltimore City WalkAmerica fund-raiser April 15.
"We are currently in the second year of a five-year, $75 million research, awareness and education campaign on prematurity," said Jill Kuhn, the organization's state director of program services. "[Gretchen Miller] can tell her personal story and help to put a face on the problem."
Premature births rose from 9.4 percent to 11.9 percent nationwide in the past 20 years, affecting one in eight babies, Kuhn said. Each year, 100,000 children develop health problems because of their early births. Prematurity is the leading cause of death in the first month of life, and Maryland's rate of preterm births is above the national average, she said.
The March of Dimes' goal is to reduce the national rate of prematurity by 15 percent by 2007. "Organizations like Spenser's Hope are a great help in raising awareness," Kuhn said.
"Gretchen's story and Spenser's Hope provide comfort to parents," said Nancy Knowles-Tuell, NICU nurse manager at Howard County General Hospital. "When parents arrive in the NICU, it is a time of high anxiety. The blankets provide a sense of the baby's space being a home away from home. It shows that people care and that someone else has been in their position. It really gives a sense of hope."
In addition to her work building the organization, Miller is an at-home mother of Ripken Miller-Pincus, a first-grader at Bryant Woods Elementary School, and a recently adopted son, Hobbs, 11 months.
"Gretchen is an amazing person," said Kara Olexa, a parent at Children and Company Preschool who served with Miller on the school's board when Ripken attended. "When we were on the board, she was the fund-raising chairwoman. She was able to encourage everyone to go above and beyond. She and her husband are both very giving people."
Information on Spenser's Hope: 410-772-8908, or www. spensershope.org. To learn more about the March of Dimes walk: 410-752-7990, or www.modimes.org.