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‘If you relax, they can feel you relax’: In retirement, public lands manager cuddles, cares for babies

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 20, 2019

“I’ve always volunteered somewhere, “ said Stephanie Snook as she holds Ethan Madruga in the NICU at Kootenai Health during her shift as a Cuddler on June 5, 2019. Cuddler volunteers provide comfort and care for babies and help staff members meet the special needs of babies and their families. Stephanie, 63, retired in 2011 a as Planning and Environmental Coordinator from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and has been volunteering every since. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
“I’ve always volunteered somewhere, “ said Stephanie Snook as she holds Ethan Madruga in the NICU at Kootenai Health during her shift as a Cuddler on June 5, 2019. Cuddler volunteers provide comfort and care for babies and help staff members meet the special needs of babies and their families. Stephanie, 63, retired in 2011 a as Planning and Environmental Coordinator from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and has been volunteering every since. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The neonatal intensive care unit is silent and relatively dark, including the room where Stephanie Snook cuddles a snoozing infant. The baby is attached to machines with two cords. The lights are out. Snook’s instructions from the nurse, left on a board on the wall, says: “Today’s Goal: Rest.”

So Snook lets the baby sleep. The baby is the second she has cuddled today on her 4-hour shift. In bright pink scrubs, with the words “Cuddle Volunteer” on them, Snook holds the baby just so, until the nurse comes in and turns on the lights.

“I was having a really good dream,” Snook said, interpreting what the infant was likely thinking, as it blinks awake in protest. The baby, swaddled tightly, is placed back in the incubator for now.

Snook’s work is done here, as it is time for the baby to have some breakfast.

But Snook isn’t done working for the day, though she could be.

After a more than 40-year career with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Snook retired in January 2011. Not that she’s been any less busy since she quit her day job.

“I’m so busy. Retirement is busy. I know people who say, ‘I’m so bored,’ and I say I’ve never been bored a minute of my life,” she said.

She grabs her book and heads to the Ronald McDonald room located on one end of the U-shaped NICU at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene. The 12-room NICU at Kootenai Health looks like new – it opened in 2016 – and each baby here gets his or her own room with an incubator, equipped with a camera for parents to watch them through an application, if they choose.

If families are there visiting their baby, a cuddler is not needed.

“Sometimes babies don’t have families or moms that come in, and those ones need the physical touch,” Snook said.

In some cases, she gets to know families, especially those whose babies are there for longer stays.

Snook is one of about 30 volunteer cuddlers on the NICU unit. Each volunteer takes a 4-hour shift to cover almost all hours of every day of the week. Snook works from 8 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays. She is a shift lead, and she has been cuddling babies here for more than a year now.

It’s not the first volunteer project she has been involved with since retiring at the end of 2010.

“I think if you relax, they can feel you relax,” she said of cuddling.

Sitting in the Ronald McDonald room on the NICU unit, she records in a binder which babies she cuddled as well as the extra tasks she accomplished.

Cuddling babies is the volunteers’ main role, but Snook quickly found that nurses needed support doing things like sorting laundry and restocking linen closets with infant clothes, blankets and towels. On other shifts, she might be called up to postpartum care or pediatrics to watch a baby or kids. In a way, cuddler volunteers can be like surrogate grandparents, Snook said, “although not everyone has white hair.”

There is one cuddler on the NICU floor at a time, so volunteers only see each other once a month for their meetings. Snook said volunteers are young and old, retired and working, women and men.

The program was so popular after the initial call for volunteers that there is still a wait list for those wanting to get into the pink scrubs. Snook got involved when her neighbor told her about the program. She has always been good with kids, volunteering previously at a school library in Hayden, Idaho, with kindergartners.

One of the first babies she cuddled in 2018 was a twin – and that brought her volunteering and family lives together, she said. She is the mother of twin girls, now grown women, and she has been working and volunteering since she was raising them.

Snook worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for more than 40 years. Her work enabled her to move around a lot – and to enjoy the outdoors. Born and raised in Montrose, Colorado, she grew up outdoors, hunting and fishing with her family. Snook’s father died when she was 16 years old, and while she said she did not take the “traditional” route to BLM, she applied and got accepted to a bureau specialty training program in Phoenix in the 1970s. In 1979, she took her first lands specialist job in Soda Springs, Idaho. She’s been moving around the state since, as she’s moved up in the bureau. She got married and raised her twins in Salmon, Idaho, where volunteering, working and parenting became her norm.

“I’m big on helping,” she said. “What I always tell people when I volunteer: You have to have your heart in this if you volunteer. If you love doing this, do it all the way, because you get such rewards. You may think that they are taking everything out of you, but you’re learning a lot and giving back to your community.”

In Salmon, Snook worked with the Salmon Arts Council to bring theater, dance and art to the small Idaho town. She recalls bringing her daughters with her to help fold napkins for fundraising dinners or programs for performances.

“When they were little, they were like, ‘Mom, now what are we working on?’ ” Snook said.

In her various roles with BLM, Snook helped mitigate environmental clearances for proposed changes to public lands, providing input on projects to ensure that they would comply with federal regulations.

To do so, she said she would seek answers to questions like, “Is this going to affect the soils, wildlife and water and in what ways? And how are you going to mitigate it if you can?”

She gives the example of a power line being built along a new route. If the power line was going through an area with rare plants, she would work with the companies or groups proposing the construction to figure out how they could keep the plant viable, whether that was through replanting or coming up with alternative plans.

She also was the equal opportunity specialist for decades in most of the offices in which she worked. She continued to travel for work, too, because she was a trainer for BLM teams. As a result, she got to see the country, flying as far as Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Mississippi, to train other BLM offices. After Snook and her first husband divorced and her daughters graduated from high school and left for college, Snook moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2002. She took on a new role at the bureau, supervising people with her old job title, including her soon to be new partner and current husband.

She retired in 2011, starting her golden years, she said.

“When you retire, you know, you start thinking about, ‘Are there other things you’d like to do? Things you didn’t have time to do before?’ ” she said.

Her mother had moved up to Coeur d’Alene from Montrose before then, and Snook is thankful she was able to spend some quality time with her mother before she died at 90 years old a few years ago.

“I was glad I retired when did so I could spend that really good time with my mom, and you know, we just had a lot of fun together, so it worked out good,” she said.

In February, Snook will become a grandmother, and she said her experience in the NICU allows her to answer questions from her daughter. As she wraps up her shift, close to noon, a gentle chime plays over the intercom speaker in the NICU. Snook pointed to the ceiling and said, “That’s the second one today.” The chimes indicate when a baby is born in the hospital. Some infants’ medical needs require them to stay in their incubators, and it will take a couple of weeks before they get to be cuddled.

“A lot of times we don’t know what they’re in there for,” Snook said. “It doesn’t say anywhere, and we don’t know. It’s not information I need to know. All I need to know is if there are special needs I need to be aware of and that’s pretty much it.”

While cuddling infants seems like a departure from mitigating land use and settling internal disputes at BLM, Snook’s ability to train up others and to put all of her energy into her work translates well onto the NICU floor.

“Sitting in a dark room cuddling a warm baby, I just exhale, it’s nice,” she said. “It’s totally a different change of pace. I think everybody needs that, whether you are going to go meditate or do yoga, which I also like to do, but you know, you need different things for different reasons.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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