To Better the Man

Alpha Sig flyerA couple years ago, Ian, one of my son’s best friends, used to sit in my kitchen telling me how fraternities weren’t all about partying and mayhem. He spoke of philanthropy in flowery words filled with conviction. An excellent spinner of the words, I listened to his spiel with a smile and allowed him a slight victory this time. His examples were valid and respect worthy. Still, I wondered as a skeptical and protective mother does.

The years my son and his friends spent in my kitchen, eating and telling their boy stories were the most fun season of my life thus far. It was easy. I felt like they always blessed me more than I ever did for them, even then. They went off to college, and one in the Navy. Sometimes, they come back for visits, and tell their stories again, in my kitchen. Those times are sweet gifts.

Last year, Ian’s fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi Gamma Zeta Chapter at Bowling Green State University, invited the ladies of SGM to bring our Comfort Bear supplies so they could help us stuff bears for mothers with grieving hearts. We gathered in the middle of their frat house and worked. It was such a blessing. I’ll admit, my heart softened a lot that day toward the idea of a college fraternity. All that I love about grace and way our Jesus accepts us as we are, well making our bears in the middle of a frat house…I think that sounds about right.

Last month, when Ian called me to ask if the gentlemen from Alpha Sig could host a fundraiser/service project for us, we were thrilled with the idea. We would set up in the middle of the student union and students could donate $5 to stuff a Comfort Bear for a grieving mother. So, not only would they be raising money for SGM, but also making bears! The boys worked and planned the event, making beautiful flyers and precious ribbons, all themselves. Those who couldn’t stuff a bear due to time constraints, could donate $2 for a ribbon. Ribbons made with the hands of these fraternity boys. The SGM Comfort Bear Team of six ladies worked hard, as well, cutting and sewing 125 bear shells to be stuffed in less than a month’s time! So grateful to the dedicated and hard-working volunteers at SGM. You ladies rock!

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This is what 125 unstuffed Comfort Bears looks like:
unstuffed bears

We were so excited for Tuesday’s event as Lynette and I loaded the van with stuffing and bears!
stuffing and bears

We arrived to find the gentlemen of Alpha Sig well prepared.
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Students stopped to inquire about the enticing cute bears, and I listened as college boys explained to each one that these bears would be offered in packets sent by Sufficient Grace Ministries, to comfort grieving moms who have lost a child in pregnancy or at birth. My heart swelled with pride and a myriad of other emotions as I listened to Ian speak words that many seasoned adults would ignore listening to, much less have the courage to speak. Because people don’t want to know that sometimes babies die. Some members of my own family do not come to SGM or speak the names of my children. But the boys from my kitchen know their names. The faces of the students changed when they heard that these bears had such a somber purpose, and one by one, many dug into their wallets to donate $5 to stuff a Comfort Bear.

The managers of Starbucks came to ask about our setup and donated $40 after the gentlemen explained about SGM.
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quality control

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more stuffing

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lauren

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girls

girls stuffing

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boys sewing

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my hannah
Above is my son’s beautiful girlfriend, Hannah, a student of BGSU and fellow SGM volunteer.

This is my Ian, the young man who used his position as philanthropy chair of Alpha Sigma Phi to make this amazing Build a Bear for Moms event possible. His incredible efforts and hard work, along with his team of brothers and the generous students and staff of BGSU earned $900 for SGM and stuffed 85 Comfort Bears to be sent around the world in Dreams of You care packages!!!! I love him like a son, and could not be more honored by him or proud of him for what he accomplished on Tuesday, and for his willing and beautiful heart to do it.

my ian

The motto of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity is to Better the Man. On Tuesday, I would say these brave young men took giant steps toward being better men than most. The courage to show compassion, to look on the pain of another and offer something…even if just acknowledgment, to look even when it hurts or makes you feel emotion, the willingness to stand in the gap with another, to lay down your own comfort for someone else, to speak while others remain silent…that is the making of a better man. Those are the kind of men worth following.

Tears fell from my grateful cheeks as I struggled to find the words to convey to these gentlemen what their efforts meant for me and every other parent who has said goodbye to their sweet baby. I still can’t find the words, or stop the tears. The beauty of their hearts and their willingness to stand with us awhile, to offer all they could…well how can a mama find words for what that means to her heart? The ladies of Sufficient Grace Ministries love the gentlemen of Alpha Sigma Phi. And, you boys are welcome in my kitchen anytime. You will always have a place in my heart. Thank you is not nearly enough.

Bereaved parents, this day, the students of BGSU stood with you.
group pic build a bear day

*You can read more thoughts on this day and a bit about another Alpha Sig member named Zeke on my Still Standing post.

More pictures of the event are displayed here.

SGM Visits the Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity House

alpha sig and sgm

 

The first time I spoke to the gentleman from Alpha Sigma Phi, I wondered how they would respond. I walked into the room filled with college boys, wearing ties – some rumpled, some pristine, some sleepy from activities the night before. I carried my Sufficient Grace Ministries bag filled with a Comfort Bear and Dreams of You book on my shoulder and a red flowered headband in my hair. I smiled to cover the intimidation I felt, walking into a room filled to the brim with testosterone.

They’re just “boys in your kitchen“, I tried to convince myself. They continued to file in with their boisterous boyness, lively and noisy. I swallowed the knot in my throat, wondering how on Earth it was that I would find myself in this place, about to talk a bunch of college boys about babies dying. I was certain this was the last thing they would want to hear.

Ian whispered, “Don’t be nervous, Mrs. Gerken.”

I said, “I’m always nervous, Ian. But, I’ll be fine.”

I stood up and began telling them the story of a twenty-one year old husband and wife standing over the grave of their baby girls, our story. I told about choosing life for Thomas and being carried through grief. They were quieted and humbled and moved. Some looked at me and nodded. Some looked down. This is a hard subject for most seasoned adults. But, all of them listened. When I was finished, and Ian suggested they volunteer to make Comfort Bears, they responded with a level of enthusiasm closer to that seen at a rock concert than any church service I’ve attended. In fact, I’ve never seen a church lady hoot, holler, applaud and proclaim  “Let’s do this!” when I asked for volunteers. Just sayin’. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two about willing hearts from a bunch of college frat boys.

I smiled and laughed all the way home that day, thinking how unlikely a pairing, and yet, how just like God to bring together a fraternity and a ministry for grieving parents. How just like God not to be hindered by preconceptions or prejudice or boundaries. He longs to stretch us and grow us beyond the comfortable hindrances we build for ourselves. If we knew the limitlessness of His grace and love, it would humble and shock us to the core. I will be honest, staring into the truth of the realization that “there is no can’t” with God is both exhilarating and frightening.

Yesterday, Kaye, Lynette, Peggy, and I spent the afternoon with about 20 boys from Alpha Sigma Phi at the BGSU campus, stuffing about 40 Comfort Bears, and cutting Teeny Tears diapers, hearts, and ribbon. One of the students even helped sew the bears shut after stuffing. We prayed and stuffed bears and listened to the story telling and laughed, just like when boys fill my kitchen. But, instead of my kitchen, we were stuffing Comfort Bears in the middle of a frat house.

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It was a sobering thought for the small group of young men gathered around the table as I showed them a tiny diaper, made to fit a baby that is 20-25 weeks old. I told them how much it means for parents to have something tangible, and to make as many memories as they can with their babies for the short time they have with them. The weight of that reality settled heavy on their faces, as I told them how special it is to parents that each item is made by hand.

diaper tracing

 

Another boy shared, “It’s something to think that each one of these bears will go to a grieving parent.”

These bears, and so many more. The number is staggering.

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In the baby loss community, great emphasis is placed on awareness and advocacy. Many are passionate about breaking the silence, knocking down the barriers, dispelling the loneliness, eliminating the stigma. We stand with you, and understand the passion. But, at SGM, I rarely feel compelled to take up a “picket sign”. Not that I blame those who do…nor do I disagree. But, our mission has been more to come alongside a grieving heart gently, offering grace. Any awareness that is brought into the equation happens naturally, not forced. It comes out in the walking together. Like grace, it flows easily, saying I will meet you where ever you are. It can even happen in a college fraternity. Our form of awareness-spreading focuses not on numbers or forcefulness, but on the heart of each individual.

This is my prayer warrior friend, Lynette, who helps weekly with shipping at SGM, and prays over the mothers on our list with me. She is a tiny mother of four strapping boys, and mighty in her gentleness. She also makes the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had.

sewing!

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This young man was a Comfort Bear stuffing prodigy. He showed us a key chain that he carries with him, in the shape of a tiny handprint. He volunteers often with a children’s hospital, and was struck when they told him that the tiny metal hand he now carries on the key ring was the actual size of a premature baby’s hand. He carries it with him as a reminder.

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There’s a whole lot of beauty in this life, if we’re looking. And, a whole lot we can learn from listening to one another. That is true ministry, true awareness. A heart that listens with love and grace, and hands that work willingly alongside one another.

Another one of the “boys from my kitchen”, Brett, attends the University of Cincinnati. In one of his classes, he was asked to do a persuasive speech about a non-profit organization/charity, with the objective to convince the class/professor/audience that it would be a worthy cause to support. He chose to speak about SGM, and told the story of Faith, Grace, and Thomas and what SGM does for other families. He spent the night at our house on one of the recent evenings I was called to a hospital. The next morning, after being with the family all night, I sat with Brett, Timothy, Hannah and Brett’s mom, Peggy, stuffing Comfort Bears. He felt the heavy of my weariness as I hugged him tight in my exhausted stupor, grateful for his willingness to serve and sit with us awhile. He has a heart that notices. I cannot tell you how it touched my heart when he told me about his speech to his classmates. I’m not sure if he knows just how much it meant to me that he even knew the names of Faith, Grace, and Thomas…that they mattered enough to him to remember. And, that they were spoken aloud by a college boy, in front of other college students.

Because our babies lived, a generation is being changed and inspired, one heart at a time.

 

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