After a devastating loss, a former military wife starts Operation Showers of Appreciation for expectant military mothers in need
In 2005, Kimberly Felshaw lost her three-week-old daughter to Trisomy 13, a chromosomal defect that severely affects the mind and body. The community of South Shores Church in Monarch Beach, California, was there to support the military wife – from hosting her baby shower to planning her baby’s memorial service.
When Felshaw and her then-husband, who was an active-duty United States Marine, lost their baby daughter Allysa, they turned to the church community since they didn’t have any family nearby.
It was that support that inspired Felshaw to create Operation Showers of Appreciation (OSOAmil) in 2006. The nonprofit tax-exempt organization is devoted to helping expectant military families.
“I decided I wanted to give back in the way the church helped us,” Felshaw, 37, tells PEOPLE.
Felshaw, who now lives in Arizona and is a mother of two (Danielle, 8, and Ben, 7), says the organization hosts large-scale group baby showers for military moms who are in need of support and items for their newborns.
OSOAmil relies on donations and volunteers who put together baby care packages, diaper programs and events and offer resources. During emergency situations, volunteers reach into their own pockets to make sure the families are supported.
Felshaw says the organization has reached more than 6,500 families across the country, with Southern California being the main hub.
“The best part for me is being able to see surprised faces,” Felshaw says. “They’re not sure at first, then everybody gets comfortable and everybody talks and it’s just more of a community event as opposed to a giveaway.”
Pregnant women who want to participate in the shower can apply online and fill out a wish list. Everyone receives at least one big-ticket item. On average, each basket is valued at $300.
“We try to make it as personal as possible,” Felshaw says.
Teresa Vallete, whose husband is a Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps, is one of the many volunteers for OSOAmil in California.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” Vallete tells PEOPLE. “Even though there are a lot of people there, you still get individual attention.”
Vallete, who welcomed her third child in 2010, was also a shower recipient. She says Felshaw does a thorough job of getting donations and ensuring items are tailored to military families – such as camouflaged bibs.
“It’s amazing she was able to take something that would bring most people to their knees and turn it into something so incredibly positive for so many people,” she says. “We’re fortunate to have some family in the Los Angeles area, but for a lot of people here, they don t have their families, and especially when you’re working with spouses who are deployed, I think it’s important to have that feeling of support.”
Arizona native Vanessa Rios, who gave birth to her third baby boy in June 2013, found comfort in knowing she had the support of OSOAmil.
“I got shoes and a breastfeeding wrap. They gave us massages, a bathtub and bigger items, like car seats and strollers,” says Rios, 30. “They try to get as much as they can.”
Since she was far from her family in Arizona, Rios was grateful to OSOAmil for making her baby shower so special.
“They give us these items because they want to and it’s amazing,” Rios says. “The people who put it on – the whole foundation – they treat you like they’ve known you for years.”
Rios adds: “All the women there have been through the same experiences you’re going through – being a mother, being pregnant – you just need someone to cry on, they were there. They don’t feel like strangers, they feel like family.”