Like many of you, I prayed for my babies before they were even conceived. I earnestly sought the Lord for His will for my husband Byron’s and my family before any of our three babies were given life. Because each of our three children were conceived within the first month of trying to become pregnant, I assumed our quick success of baby making was always a sign from God we were on track with His ordained plan for our lives. Our first son was born full term and healthy. Sadly, my Jonathan and Baby Mitchell did not survive. But even through this, I’ve learned over the years we are on track with His plan; it’s just my plans and His plans didn’t and still don’t always align. I know His ways are better, even if I don’t always immediately like the path Almighty God has prepared for me. As you can all relate, the first year following my Jonathan’s stillbirth in 1995 was without a doubt, the worst year of my life. Not only was I deeply grieving the death of my “Precious Gift from God,” I was incredibly confused spiritually. How and why did this happen? I truly believed God and I had a plan together, but the plan I had envisioned did not happen. I felt beyond betrayed by God the first several months after my baby’s cord accident that resulted in his stillbirth. How could such a “fluke” have been allowed by God? Where was He? Maybe He didn’t even exist… But God never left me. He never abandoned me. He always heard my cries.
Eleven months after Jonathan’s death, on Mother’s Day of 1996, I reconciled my relationship with the Lord. He was always there, waiting for me; I just blocked Him out because I was so angry and confused. On the 2nd Sunday in May, several months after my devastating loss, I knew that indeed He had not forgotten me, and He very much had a plan for me - and for the suffering I had endured. I can’t explain it. It was just imprinted on my heart and in my spirit that day. But what was His plan, and how and when was it supposed to begin? A few weeks later as I was cleaning my house, I started to throw away the Sunday edition of what was then The Dallas Times Herald. I felt compelled to browse the obituary section just to see if perhaps there was a notice of a baby’s death. Sadly, there was. The baby was Cailey Elizabeth Ottinger. Like Jonathan, she, too, was stillborn because of a cord accident. I wrote Cailey’s mom, Laurie, a letter and mailed it to the funeral home listed in the obituary, hoping they would forward it to Cailey’s family. Thankfully, they did. A few days later, Laurie and I became email friends and eventually met for lunch. We spent hours together that summer afternoon sharing our babies and our emotions. At this lunch, she asked me if I had read about another family in the area whose baby, Michael Joseph, was stillborn because of Trisomy 18. At the time, I had never heard of Trisomy 18, and I nicely let Laurie know I was not in the habit of checking the obituary section for babies who had died. Laurie felt compelled to contact Michael’s mom, Lynne, who, shortly thereafter, became a “member of our little club.” We then met another mom, Stacey, who had just moved to the Dallas area from another state after the shocking stillbirth of her baby boy, Griffen Douglas. The four of us moms began to regularly meet and communicate with each other. Before long, I realized our little group was more than a “club.” We were actually a support group.
With the help of my attorney dad and a CPA friend who specializes in non-profits, I began M.E.N.D.— Mommies Enduring Neonatal Death. We obtained our recognition in the State of Texas on September 7, 1996, (coincidentally the one year anniversary of Jonathan’s due date). We held our first official support group in November and published our first newsletter edition at the same time (like all of our newsletters, the first edition can be read on our website under Newsletter Archives). I recall telling Byron I could feel this was going to be “big” - God has something really incredible up His sleeve. At the time, I’m sure Byron was thinking, “uh…okay - my poor wife…what in the world is she talking about?!” I began plugging along and obeying the legal and financial instructions my dad and CPA were providing. This was before most people had the Internet at their fingertips, and very few organizations had websites. So, we still depended on newspapers, the yellow pages and various publications to spread our name and purpose. Just months into our new ministry, friends of ours who were computer savvy, Max and Jody Friz, approached me and asked if they could create a website for M.E.N.D. I didn’t really even know what a website was, but I trusted what Max was saying and obliged. He was right! The World Wide Web took our little organization to a whole new level.
Before long, we had grieving families from all over the world subscribing to our newsletter, and communicating with one another on our site’s guestbook. Every month at least one new family attended our support group, and within the first couple of years we began offering a variety of support, such as a Subsequent Pregnancy Group, a Daddies Group, a Parenting After Loss Playgroup, an Infertility after Loss Group, and even a Ladies Night Out (a.k.a. Food & Fellowship). Less than one year after starting M.E.N.D., we decided enough families were involved to host our first Walk to Remember. A few of us had attended one in the area the previous year and were confident we could coordinate one ourselves. We spent weeks planning this ceremony and did our best to ensure it would be a beautiful and memorable day for the expected 100 guests. However, in our event planning naïveté, we did not develop a Plan B in case of rain. It poured and poured that afternoon! One of our vehicles became stuck in the mud. Almost all of our balloons escaped before the event began. We had to make a last minute decision to hold the ceremony under a pavilion at the park rather than down the walk path by our donated tree, which was supposed to don all our homemade ornaments that had each of our baby’s names and birth/death dates inscribed on them. Our solemn walk to the ceremony site to watch our blue, pink and white balloons majestically float to heaven did not happen the way we planned. But, we lived and learned, and now we feel we’re experts in planning a successful Walk to Remember! In the past few years, we’ve welcomed more than 1,000 guests at each of our ceremonies the first Saturday in October. We know how to quickly transition to a Plan B if unfortunately needed, and we’ve developed a wonderfully efficient and organized system of registering and accommodating our crowd of grieving families. This year, for our 20th anniversary of the Walk to Remember, we are expecting a crowd of 1,250 - 1,500!
In connection with our 20th Walk this year, we are dedicating a Garden of Hope. The Garden’s centerpiece will be the beautiful Hope Monument, which is a life-size sculpture of Jesus holding a baby, sitting next to a grieving mother. The patio of the Garden will consist of memorial bricks that many of you purchased in memory of your baby(ies). Our Garden will be a place where people can visit anytime they want to pray, think or remember their loved ones. This is a project we have been working on for more than eight years and are thankful our dream is coming to fruition on this 20th anniversary year.
Similarly, each December we host a Christmas Candlelight Ceremony. Our first one was at the beginning of the holidays in 1997, a little over a year after M.E.N.D.’s formation. About 50 guests attended our first ceremony in a brightly lit fellowship hall at my church, Calvary Church in Irving, Texas. We have since learned that true candlelight and small clear Christmas lights and soft music sets a warm ambiance for the evening. This ceremony has remained intimate over the years with rarely more than 300 guests. Over the next three years, our leadership team changed and grew. Area hospitals began inviting us to train their nursing staff on how to care for families when a loss occurs. We scored a few television and radio interviews, and even filmed a couple of training videos that were shown in hospitals across the United States.
Our next stepping stone was huge and one we were not quite ready for: expanding M.E.N.D. to other areas in the United States. Nine years after our inception, we were contacted by three moms on our mailing list from different areas asking if they could open a chapter of M.E.N.D. where they lived. Our Board of Directors quickly developed some guidelines, an application form and process, and prayed we had not missed any important details. In the spring and early summer of 2005, our small non-profit in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex grew to having three additional chapters. We first opened in the NW Arkansas area, a couple of weeks later in Emporia, Kansas, and then in Houston, Texas. Over the years, we have opened a number of chapters across Texas and several other states. We’ve learned over time what works and what does not work, and have been given a good idea of where chapters will thrive, and where they will not. Today, there are eight additional chapters of M.E.N.D. in addition to our headquarters in the DFW metroplex. And beyond our wildest dreams, two years ago a mom in Nigeria contacted us about expanding M.E.N.D. to Africa. She happened to have business in the states so we flew her from her business meeting location to Texas to discuss this exciting expansion. We discovered the legalities of opening in another country were almost impossible, so we agreed to have her start a “sister chapter,” which is called FAMEND - Foundation of African Mommies Enduring Neonatal Death!
As our ministry grew into a national organization, I quickly realized the need for all of us to stay connected, so 10 years ago I began hosting an annual Leadership Conference. Each year all of the individual Chapter Directors and their leadership teams travel to the Dallas area. We spend two days together in training sessions and getting to know each other better. This time of fellowship is truly one of the highlights of my year. As M.E.N.D. developed a trustworthy reputation amongst the healthcare providers in North Texas, I began receiving invitations to serve on various boards, panels, teams and even write and endorse a number of publications. Additionally, my calendar stays quite full with hospital trainings and various speaking engagements. I never take for granted the opportunity to speak and share how the ashes of my story have turned into something so incredibly beautiful.
These past 20 years have surely been an emotional adventure – an adventure I never dreamed I would take and a journey I never could have imagined the Lord had prepared for me. I am humbled by what God has done through my suffering, and it has been a privilege to serve all of you and offer you the same comfort I have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4). I earnestly pray I am able to serve 20 more wonderful years bestowing the love, comfort and peace that can only come from our Heavenly Father as we remember and continue to miss our little babies who died too soon.
♥ Rebekah Mitchell, Mommy to Jonathan Daniel and Baby Mitchell M.E.N.D.—President/Founder