In May 2010, Bridgette Crews was 34 weeks pregnant when she noticed one afternoon that she had not felt her usually very active daughter kick. “I pushed on my belly,” Crews tells PEOPLE, “and felt absolutely nothing and started to cry.”
Crews and her husband, Chris, went to the hospital hoping that their baby girl, already named Molly, was okay.
Instead, the couple received devastating news. “The doctor came in and said ‘There’s no heartbeat,’ ” recalls Crews, 39, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. “My husband screamed and cried and he never cries. It was horrendous.”
They soon learned that Molly had died from a very tight knot in her umbilical cord, which was also wrapped around her neck. After Crews was induced, the 4 lbs, 9 oz. Molly was delivered that night. Says Crews, “It was terrible.”
After Molly’s death, one of Crews’ high school friends, who understood the intense longing new moms feel to hold their babies, told Crews she would be sending her a three-pound teddy bear to hug.
But Crews, already a mother of three, didn’t want to wait. And she wanted to hold a bear that weighed exactly the same as Molly. “I couldn’t sleep, I had to do something,” she says.
The next day, Crews went to Build-A-Bear Workshop and bought the shell of a bear, took it to a grocery store and, while standing in an aisle, stuffed it with rice until it weighed exactly four pounds, nine ounces.
That night, Crews recalls, “having her on my chest was the first time I could sleep through the night in weeks. Her weight did it. I slept with her and slept with her.”
Crews shared the news with members of her support group, offering to make bears for other moms who had lost their child.
Crews got lots of takers. The beloved bears were such a hit that in August 2010, Crews launched Molly Bears, a nonprofit that makes personalized bears for families who’ve lost a baby or child in pregnancy or infancy, with each bear weighing what the child did. A group of 20 volunteer bear makers spread across the country makes the bears; most are moms who themselves have lost a child.
So far, Crews and her bear makers have created over 10,000 bears for families all over the U.S. and in 29 other countries. Bears have gone to families with a wide array of devastating losses: premature triplets, conjoined twins, children who have died in car accidents, house fires, SIDS and domestic violence.
Molly Bears has back orders for about 1,000 bears, with a four to six month wait for an order to be fulfilled, says Crews, who welcomed a son, Jason, a year after losing Molly. Last October, she gave birth to twins she carried as a surrogate for one of her Molly Bear makers, who had lost her child at one month.
To pay for materials and shipping, Molly Bears charges a $20 waiting list fee, with the $45 cost to make and ship each bear supplemented by donations. To sign up for a bear, the waiting list opens the last day of each month.
“I know we are giving them a real tangible way to show the world their baby,” says Crews. “It’s a Band-Aid on our hearts.”
For Stacey Skrysak, who lost two of her three premature triplets, the bears have provided enormous comfort.
“They are giving us something tangible to hold onto, which is a godsend when us angel parents are having those difficult moments,” she says. “These volunteers are heroes to all of us who have lost a child.”
Each bear is specially tailored, with little details about the child woven into it.
Volunteer bear maker Sabrina Kleymann sewed a tutu and headband into the bear she made of Skrysak’s late daughter, and a football pin on Skrysak’s other bear, for her son Parker.
“It’s nice to be able to give people that peace and comfort,” says Kleymann, “to reassure people that their babies matter no matter what anybody tells you.”
Kleymann, 33, a stay-at-home mom from Carson City, Nevada, has made about 500 Molly Bears over the last four years. She became involved after losing three babies via miscarriages and receiving a three-pound Molly Bear in 2011, a pound representing each lost baby.
“For me, getting the bear was recognition I was allowed to love them,” Kleymann says. “It was something for me to hold and remind me it’s okay to love them and miss them.”