It all started on Feb. 4, 2005, when Maddux Achilles Haggard was born with a condition called myotubular myopathy. He couldn't breathe, swallow or move on his own. On his sixth day, his parents, Mike and Cheryl, made the decision to take him off life support. But first, they asked photographer, and then PPA board member, Sandy Pu?, to take black-and-white portraits of them with their son before and after they took him off life support.
Four months later, Pu? received a call from a client's sister who was having a baby under similar circumstances. However in this instance, the hospital didn't tell the family their baby wasn't going to make it. Pu? talked with Cheryl Haggard afterword and expressed her guilt that she wasn't able to give this family her best and most professional images because the family wasn't told. It turned out that Haggard too felt guilt--that she had these professional images and other families had a Polaroid or cell phone image at best.
And it clicked--they decided to turn grief into passion and love and formed Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (NILMDTS), named after the children's bedtime prayer. Within six months the PPA affiliate had over 2,000 volunteers. Now as it approaches its tenth year, NILMDTS annually serves tens of thousands of families, providing over $5 million in services per year. What started as a grassroots movement in Colorado now reaches every state in the U.S. and is present in 42 countries worldwide.
At first weary that the photographers were taking advantage of grieving parents, hospitals now refer to NILMDTS volunteers as "the angels" because of the work they provide. Staff at partnered hospitals is trained to mention NILDMTS if a situation arises where the infant isn't expected to survive, and in other cases, the families themselves will reach out. According to co-founder, Sandy Pu?, 60 percent of requests come from hospitals while the other 40 come directly from the families. The work is done completely on a volunteer basis.
"Our photographers pack their bags and go to the hospitals for free," said Pu?. "They don't promote their own business--they represent the organization. There's no money exchanged, but the value to these families and the world is tremendous."
As the organization has grown, NILMDTS has become a recognized part of the grieving process.
"These families go to the hospital super excited with a diaper bag and painted nursery back home, and they leave with "how to grieve" literature--that's it," said Pu?. "They don't know how to prepare or how to grieve."
NILMDTS offer families the only opportunity they will ever have for images with their child. Sadly, in most cases, it's the only thing they will do as a family.
"What we do changes the way these families heal," said Pu?. "Even if their baby never takes a breath, for eight, nine months all they've done is love that baby. It's like losing your future. This gives them the only tangible thing they have of their child. It's their only physical piece of history."
How to Get Involved
NILMDTS volunteer opportunities aren't limited to photographers, but also digital retouch artists. Editing the images can often be just as difficult as photographing them, DRA volunteers can help share the burden.
To get involved as a volunteer, interested photographers pay a small application/membership fee which goes toward maintaining NILMDTS's paid staff.
Photographers are also asked to submit images of babies and children with their application that demonstrate their ability to handle at least two lighting situations. Applicants don't need to be full-time professional photographers, but must possess the necessary skillset.
If approved, they will go through an online training process and enter the "find a photographer" database. Many cities have implemented a calendar program, so volunteers aren't on call 24-7. Volunteers sign up for the day or days they can make themselves available to make sure it doesn't interfere with their paid work.
If they don't pass the application, NILMDTS provides shadowing opportunities to be a photographer's assistant. The shadowing and further training videos can get them to the point where they can photograph a session independently.
The organization needs volunteers and donations to keep providing its services. To get involved as a volunteer or make a donation, visit NILMDTS.org.