After the deadly diagnosis of their newborns, three moms found strength in each other during long, strenuous stints in the neonatal intensive care unit — and in the non-profit they started for other struggling families.
Corin Nava, Stephanie Olivarez and Kate Crawford all gave birth to babies with congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a defect of the diaphragm that can lead to difficulty breathing and even death, in 2006 and 2007. The women, who live all across the country, met on an online support group and “immediately formed a strong bond,” they say, as they faced the daily hardships of life with an infant in intensive care.
“The NICU is a world that people don’t really know what to say or how to deal with it. I found Stephanie and Kate and we connected and had a bond from the beginning,” Nava, 32, tells PEOPLE. “We talked about our experiences and what we had gone through, it was a breath of fresh air, we are open about our grief, yet still positive.”
Nava’s son, Gabriel, spent 55 days in the NICU before passing away on January 12, 2007. Crawford’s daughter, Shannon, was in the NICU for 3 days before she died on January 19, 2007. And Stephanie’s daughter, Shelby, now 10, spent 53 days in the NICU before her release.
In 2009, the women — recognizing the importance of family-centered care — formed Project Sweet Peas, a non-profit organization that gives “hope and support and love to families with babies in the NICU or families experiencing the loss of a baby.”
“We all saw a need for family programs in the NICU through our own experiences,” Crawford, 32, tells PEOPLE. “Through Project Sweet Peas, I was also able to channel my grief by creating a beautiful organization after such a terrible storm in my life.”
Project Sweet Peas is made up of 18 divisions spread across the country. To date, the more than 50 volunteers for the organization have sent out around 2,000 bereavement memory boxes and 6,000 holiday gifts to families with babies in the NICU.
“We also deliver comfort packages, baby blankets, baby hats, baby booties, books, piggy banks and gift cards,” Olivarez, 43, tells PEOPLE. “It’s the little gestures, but the main thing is that we want to let parents know they’re not alone in this process. We understand them and their grief and we try to give them hope for the future and for their babies.”
Adds Nava: “Being in the NICU can be isolating and scary. It’s not a place you expect to be. You expect to have your child and take them home and have that joyous experience of being a mom. It’s hard to celebrate the birth of a child when you’re watching them fight for their life.”
Project Sweet Peas has also awarded 36 grants to families with the launch of their NICU Family grant last year, which gave close to $8,000 in funding to families in financial need.
Kristy Nimblett met Nava in 2013 — one month after giving birth to her son, Jarred, at 24 weeks.
“He came out ready to fight, and he was in the NICU for 5 months before passing,” Nimblett, a 29-year-old optical technician from Warwick, Rhode Island, tells PEOPLE. “Everyone else was taking their babies home and doctors were saying I couldn’t take my baby home, it was scary and lonely until I heard from Corin.”
The two met through a social worker, and Nava told Nimblett about the benefits of Project Sweet Peas.
“I didn’t see a future after losing Jarred, but Project Sweet Peas helped me through that. I would get a letter or email to let me know I’m not alone ‘We’re thinking of you,’ ” she says. “It’s incredible how much of a support system it is. Corin is a Godsend.”
Nimblett is now a volunteer for the Rhode Island branch of Project Sweet Peas, Gabriel’s Gift, named in honor of Nava’s son.
“The depression was really awful at first and I didn’t see an ending to it. But with their help, I ended up getting though it,” says Nimblett. “And now it’s my turn to give back and be there for other grieving families.”
Nimblett says she decided to become a part of the organization, because it “saved (her) life.”
“It was the phone calls once a week to see how I was doing and how Jarred was doing,” she says. “The volunteers called to just let me vent, they were a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen.
“They really became like another family.”
And Nimblett still pulls out the treasured bereavement box given to her by Project Sweet Peas.
“It had an angel teddy bear and a book about how to grieve healthy,” she says. “And a little mom bracelet. When he passed I didn’t feel like a mom anymore, but I look at that bracelet and it reminds me that I’m still a mother. Even though he isn’t physically here I still get that title.”
“I can’t thank them enough. They gave me a second chance,” she adds. “They gave me people to relate to and a community for support. Even now, three years later, it’s the greatest thing to happen to me while he was here and after he passed.”
Nava, Olivarez and Crawford have set up an online portal where parents can request care packages and bereavement boxes.
“Every division fundraises for local hospitals and volunteers come together to put together packages for families,” Nava explains. “We rely heavily on local fundraisers to raise funds. And we receive donations back from former families that have received packages as well as some community grants.”
In the future, the women hope to expand the organizations’ family assistance program (providing food gifts cards and gas money to parents in need) and fulfilling each memory box request they receive.
“Even though this organization started out of such heartache and grief, knowing that it has helped hundreds of thousands of families through the worst times in their lives makes it all worth it,” says Crawford. “It’s special.”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine