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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Memorial gifts: Mom, with adult daughter, gives stuffed animals to NICU to honor her SIDS baby

Some unexpected gifts – soft and furry – arrived early this holiday season for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital.

More than 50 new stuffed animals were donated to the hospital by a Spokane Valley mom, Andrea Berndt, and her adult daughter, Stephanie Berndt. Some of those gifts were given this past week to several families for their babies receiving care. The mom also bought and donated about 15 blankets for hospitalized teens.

The gesture honors Andrea Berndt’s second child, Ashley, who at nearly 8 weeks old died in 1989 from sudden infant death syndrome. Since then, Andrea Berndt and her family have tried every year to do something positive in their community in memory of Ashley.

“Ashley was born June 1 and passed away July 24 of 1989,” said Berndt, 53. She and her husband turned in that first year to a SIDS support group in their former hometown of Portland while still parenting then-toddler Stephanie.

“It was a devastating thing in my life, and I had to find some kind of, not a reason, but a way to deal with it, I suppose, because this couldn’t have happened for no reason for all,” Berndt said. “I was in my early 20s at that point. Even though it would never be something good, it would be something good to come out of it.”

The two women, who over several months bought the items from stores, delivered them in bags to Deaconess on Nov. 30 and Dec. 7. They were told by hospital staff that the toys would “quarantine” at Deaconess for three days and also be sanitized before given to families.

Stephanie Berndt had first suggested the idea to give gifts for children in the hospital this year in honor of Ashley. She works at Amy’s Hallmark at Spokane Valley Mall, so she used her employee discount to buy stuffed animals – a few at a time – since this past spring. Her mom also purchased other stuffed animals while shopping at Walmart and Target.

“We collected a big bag of stuffies,” said Stephanie Berndt, 34. “We thought, ‘Let’s donate them and have them go to someone who will snuggle Snoopy or would love a dinosaur.’ I would have done it without the discount. There are a couple Snoopys in there, stuffed dinosaurs, a couple small angel bears.”

The wide assortment had to be all newly purchased items, said Andrea Berndt, who estimated that they collected about 56 stuffed animals since March.

In the first years after Ashley’s death, Berndt said she often matched a community contribution to a benefit for kids who were at whatever age Ashley would have been. That included mainly donated toys or books to a local elementary school or charity in Ashley’s name.

“We’ve done our best to do this every year, so some years, it was just bringing cookies to the fire station or the police station,” she said. “It’s whatever strikes our heart that year, or sometimes it’s an extra donation to the SIDS Foundation in her name.

“When she would have been a teenager, we gave to Crosswalk or to Central Valley High School because that’s where she would have gone.”

She said an Inland Northwest SIDS group is active here, now known as Safe Start, a program of Northwest Infant Survival and SIDS Alliance. The rate of SIDS deaths has fallen since the 1990s after education to put babies down for sleep on their backs and not their tummies.

Awareness also stresses that caregivers avoid use of soft bedding such as blankets, pillows, bumper pads and soft toys in a baby’s sleep area to prevent accidental suffocation. Each year in the U.S., there are about 3,500 sudden unexpected infant deaths.

Ashley would be 31 today, an age when she might have been a mom.

After their loss, the family was in Portland for about a year until Berndt’s husband joined the military, and they moved where he was stationed for 10 years before coming to Spokane, where they’ve lived since 1999.

The family also grew, with the births of another daughter and a son, Victoria and Tristen, both currently working in Spokane. A conversation earlier this year with Tristen prompted Andrea Berndt to include donations for teens who are hospitalized.

“When I was looking at stuffed animals in the store, I also thought of a conversation I had with my son about teenagers and how this has been a hard year for them as well in the hospital. I added 14 or 15 of the soft lap blankets just in case there are some teenagers who are dealing with stuff.”

“We told them at the hospital that we’d like the blankets to go to the teens because they’re not so big on the stuffed animals part, but it might help to have something given as kind of a support, as a ‘you’re not alone’ kind of feeling. I can’t imagine what some of these kids are going through not being able to see family except for maybe one at a time. It would be hard for adults to deal with it.”

The stuffed animal project was a mother-daughter venture, but Ashley’s other siblings will likely join them sometime this season for a family tribute to her, perhaps releasing balloons in the park, Stephanie Berndt said.

Andrea Berndt usually includes a note with any tangible donations that it is in memory of Ashley, but she didn’t get a chance this time.

“I usually make a card with her picture on it and just add in there that it is in Ashley’s memory – that we do this to honor her – as well as bringing her spirit of life to whatever it is that we’re donating to. It’s usually a short note just to bring a smile to their day.”

To that, Stephanie Berndt added the hope that the gifts will help families with children in the hospital know they’re not alone and that people are thinking about them. “Hoping they get through, one day at a time.”

Andrea Berndt credits parents who taught her to give back to the community. She tries to volunteer each June and July, as well, also in Ashley’s honor.

“This is kind of the one thing that’s really close to all of our hearts because it concerns Ashley. It’s my heart, for sure. Doing something that honors our angel makes it even better.”