Riverhead resident Bonnie Connelly began making hats and blankets for premature babies after her own daughter was born at just 31 weeks. Photo: Katie Blasl

For many weeks after a premature baby is born, parents are thrown into a frightening alternate reality where infants in incubators fight for their lives in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“If you’ve never been there, you just don’t know,” said Bonnie Connelly, a Riverhead mother who gave birth to her own premature baby at 31 weeks in 2004. “It can be a very scary place.”

So when her infant was finally discharged from the hospital after a long month of feeding tubes and breathing machines, Connelly tried to find a way to bring a little more happiness to families going through similar experiences.

Nora, who is now 10 years old, takes dance classes at ReDancers on Main Street and loves to read. Photo: Katie Blasl
Nora, who is now 10 years old, takes dance classes at ReDancers on Main Street and loves to read. Photo: Katie Blasl

The idea came to her while her newborn, Nora, was still in intensive care.

Outside the walls of Stony Brook University Hospital, the world was overflowing with holiday cheer. Not so in the neonatal intensive care unit, which is more commonly referred to as the NICU by the parents who spend every spare moment caring for their infants there.

As Christmas approached, daily life remained the same for the anxious NICU families and their heroic nurses, who tended to sick and undersized infants with almost mechanical efficiency – preparing beds for newcomers, ushering in teams of doctors and specialists, managing machines and medications.

“You’re there with your baby,” Connelly explained, “and you know the parents to the right of you are going home tomorrow, but the parents to the left of you – their baby’s not going to make it through the night. And you kind of sit there in the middle and wonder – which set of parents are we going to end up being?”

In situations like that, she said, it’s the little things that make all the difference.

Nora, who was born on Thanksgiving Day, spent four weeks in Stony Brook University Hospital’s NICU. Photo: Katie Blasl

Just before Christmas, Connelly and her mother arrived at the hospital to find all the premature newborns had hand-knit Christmas tree hats fitted onto their tiny heads. “They had these little green pom poms all over them,” she said, “and it really just brought a smile to our faces. We were like – look at all of them! They’re all ready for Christmas!”

She laughed. “I know it’s silly to say, but those simple hats… They brought joy to a place that seemed a little bit scary sometimes.”

Many months later, those Christmas tree hats gave Connelly inspiration to start spreading some joy of her own.

The following year, Connelly and a growing group of women began knitting and crocheting hats – and later, blankets – to donate to the NICU at Stony Brook. The donations are made through the Little Angel Fund, a local non-profit founded by a woman who lost her premature daughter when she was only 33 days old.

The first boxes were shipped the autumn after Nora was born, containing about 40 candy-corn and pumpkin themed hats.

2015_0728_bonnie_hatsEvery year since then, Connelly and her small network of stitchers has sent out two shipments – one in the fall with autumn-themed colors and decorations, and one in the spring with more generic colors. A core group of about seven women, two of whom live out of state, sends Connelly blankets and hats throughout the year. This fall’s shipment is the largest yet, with 42 blanket-and-hat sets for girls, 40 for boys, and 20 sets with autumn colors.

Nora, who is now 10 and loves to dance, likes to help her mother pair the blankets with hats and match colors.

“She’s my little fashion consultant,” Connelly joked, and Nora smiled shyly.

“I just think it will help a lot of people out there,” Nora said. “Because some babies are born too early, or they’re too light, or they can’t get enough to eat… So this probably will help them out a lot. They’ll know that people care.”

Connelly agreed. “When Nora had her little care package with her little Christmas hat, it just meant a lot to know that somebody was thinking about you,” she said. “Even if they didn’t know you. Just that someone out there knew you needed some TLC, and they sent it your way.”

Nora helps her mother with bagging the hats and blankets and coordinating the colors. Photo: Katie Blasl
Nora helps her mother with bagging the hats and blankets and coordinating the colors. Photo: Katie Blasl

Just this spring, a colleague at Cutchogue East Elementary School, where Connelly is a special education teacher, reached out to say that Connelly’s efforts made a difference to her and her family when her own daughter gave birth to a premature baby.

“She told me there was this one evening they were all sitting in the waiting room, and they were really upset,” Connelly said. “And they opened up one of the Little Angel Fund magazines. And they saw that I had written something in there about donating the hats and blankets, and they were like – ‘Bonnie gave us hope.’

“She came and found me at work holding the magazine, and she told me when they read it they knew everything was going to be okay,” Connelly said. “It brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t stop crying.”

Awareness, Connelly says, is something that could make premature births much easier.

“It happens much more often that you’d think,” she said. Her husband, Brian Connelly, recalled how many colleagues at his firefighting job at the Fire Department of New York reached out to him after they learned about Nora.

“All these guys came up to me to tell me it happened to them too,” Brian said. “You don’t really hear about it until it happens to you.”

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