- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

SHAWNEE, Kan. (AP) - A number of years ago, Jill and Ty Swarts of Shawnee went to dinner to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. But they didn’t say a whole lot during the meal.

“I don’t think we said five words to each other. We just blankly stared at each other the entire dinner,” Ty recalled. “We were like, ‘Wow, OK, what’s next?’”

The couple was reeling from the news they had received earlier that day during a scheduled sonogram for Jill, who was six weeks pregnant: She would be giving birth to not one, not two, but three babies. As it was their first pregnancy, the two were pretty shocked to say the least.

“It was both our parents’ first grandchildren,” Ty said. “It went from zero to wow, you’re really jumping in.”

The Lawrence Journal-World (https://bit.ly/1rP5AHS ) reports that before too long, shock turned to excitement for the expectant parents. And 26 weeks later, on April 14, Jill delivered fraternal triplets, all weighing less than 4 pounds. The babies were born eight weeks early, which is typical for triplets, Jill said. But it took three weeks in the neonatal intensive-care unit, or NICU, at Overland Park Regional Medical Center before brothers Luke and Brady and sister Taya were deemed healthy enough to be taken home by their new parents.

Those triplets are now healthy, 10 years old and in fourth grade at Belmont Elementary School in the De Soto school district. Jill still clearly recalls, however, the level of service and support her family received from the NICU staff at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.

“Wonderful,” she said. “For some reason, throughout the entire pregnancy I was never scared. And the time that they spent in the NICU wasn’t scary, and I think it’s because we had such a great support team.”

That’s why Jill wanted to give back to the facility that had helped her family so much a decade ago. So in February, she approached her three children with an idea.

“I said, ‘In thinking about your birthday and turning 10, we wanted to do something memorable and special,’” Jill said. “‘How would you feel if we paid it forward and decided to donate pajamas back to the NICU where you were born?’”

Though Luke said there were some small, initial misgivings among the siblings as the pajama drive their mother proposed would be in lieu of birthday presents, they were quickly on board with the idea.

“Because it’s better to give than to receive,” Taya said.

And so Project PJ was born. Jill said the drive was started initially with an email to close friends and family, telling them about the idea and asking for donations of pajamas for premature and newborn babies.

“And from there it just kind of grew,” she said.

Over the course of about eight weeks, up until the triplets’ birthday on April 14, donations began pouring in through the mail and also at school. A lot of the time, the donations came in threes in honor of the three siblings, Jill said. Their initial goal, Luke said, was to gather at least 100 pairs of pajamas.

“We thought, if we could collect 100, that would be awesome,” Jill said. “And as the numbers started to grow closer to 100 (within only about four weeks), we got even more excited to see how big this could get.”

Ultimately, 205 pairs of pajamas were collected through the drive. And after their birthday arrived, the siblings delivered that collection of pajamas in a wagon personally to the NICU staff at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.

“I think it was really nice to do this because I don’t think the parents were expecting that people would give preemie PJs to the babies,” Luke said. “It just made me feel good to donate all these PJs.”

Though the hospital already has a collection of premature- and newborn-sized pajamas, NICU social worker Elaine Riordan said it’s the story behind the drive that will be of the most benefit to parents. She said about 10 to 15 pairs of the donated pajamas have already been given out to parents thus far, and the hospital plans to share the story in some way to each parent who receives pajamas through Project PJ.

“There’s always this little doubt in their mind that maybe we’re not going to make it. So this story of 10-year-old preemies coming back, giving back is very inspirational to parents that are stepping into that role right now. It’s very inspirational to see the vision of where my baby is going to be like these babies in 10 years,” she said, gesturing to Luke, Taya and Brady sitting together Monday on a couch in the lobby of the NICU. “This is the dream.”

And seeing one’s baby - previously only clothed in a diaper or blanket as necessitated by the level of care they require in the NICU - in a pair of actual pajamas is a pretty big deal for parents struggling with the fear and worry that can come with babies born prematurely, Riordan said.

“It’s a kind of a big day when parents come in and their babies are finally in baby clothes,” she said.

That day of seeing their own babies in pajamas for the first time is one Jill and Ty won’t ever forget.

“I just think we knew we were that much closer to bringing them home,” Jill said.

Among the triplets, the recent pajama drive has inspired a desire to continue paying it forward in the future.

“We think every 10 years we’re going to do something big,” Luke said.

Every 10 years even up until they reach age “100,” added Taya excitedly.

A look of pride took over Jill’s face as she listened to such statements from her children.

“It makes my heart happy,” she said.


Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com

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