Kristen and Matt Ritchie were looking for some kind of distraction last November.
The young couple were facing their first Christmas without their daughter, Charlotte. Born with a heart defect, she had survived surgeries, ventilators and countless tests, only to slip away unexpectedly at the end of May 2011. It was two weeks after her first birthday.
The Ritchies were seeking some way to honor their lost baby, to give back to those who had helped the family, to hold fast the memories and connections they had made during her short life.
Charley, as the family often called their chubby-cheeked girl, had loved her sock monkey. RedButt made Charley smile.
He tagged along on hospital trips. He helped prop up breathing tubes.
So Kristen Ritchie decided last November to make sock monkeys for children spending Christmas in the pediatric intensive care unit at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, where Charlotte had had her surgeries.
Ritchie knew what it was like to watch the monitors, to spend sleepless nights, to hope and pray.
That fall, Ritchie and her mom, Debbie Goeser of Omaha, and other relatives and friends made 25 monkeys for Project RedButt. So far this year, Ritchie has socked away 50 monkeys and has sent the makings for more than 40 more to volunteer crafters.
She has also begun sending finished monkeys to children across the country, children facing their own heart troubles and scary hospital stays.
“You're not making anything better or fixing anything,” Kristen Ritchie said. “It's just a small, little thing that maybe will make people smile.”
But the Ritchies, who live in Lincoln, know that sometimes a smile, a connection, can help.
Some days — even some stretches of days — are still hard for the couple, even with a new baby in the family, new jobs to juggle, a new house in the works.
Then they get a photo of a child with one of the donated sock monkeys.
“We just have to do what we can to continue to honor her and keep her memory alive,” Ritchie said of her daughter. “That's one of the biggest fears is that everything happens, people move on, people forget. It's just not something that I think either my husband or I are willing to let happen.”
Certainly, the Ritchies aren't the only family to reach out from tragedy. Children's Hospital has been seeing more people seeking to give back not only to the hospital but also to patients and families going through similar experiences, said Rob Harding, community resource specialist.
For the donors, it can be a healthy part of the healing process, he said. Those on the receiving end get the message that someone cares about them, knows what they're going through.
“Even though she (Charley) is no longer with us, she's still making an impact,” Harding said. “She's touching people across the United States. You and I couldn't achieve that if we tried to.”
Before Charlotte was born, the Ritchies had no idea what lay ahead until Kristen Ritchie's 20-week ultrasound. Both pharmacists, they had married in February 2009 and were living in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The sonographer told them they were having a girl. A doctor came in and looked again. She thought one side of the heart was smaller than the other. She sent them to a pediatric cardiologist the next day.
The right side of the baby's heart, the side that sends blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen, wasn't fully developed.
Kristen Ritchie started a blog. Writing was easier than telling the story over and over, even to family and close friends.
She began reading the blogs of other “heart” parents, becoming part of a community with which she could share the ups and downs. Congenital heart defects, she learned, are the most common type of major birth defect.
Charlotte was born in Omaha on May 15, 2010. She had her first surgery at 1 week old and her second at 2 weeks. She went home at 1 month. She got RedButt that Christmas, a handmade gift from one of Ritchie's sisters, Angie Iske of Oklahoma City. He went everywhere with Charlotte.
“It seems like whenever I look at pictures, there's always a sock monkey in the background,” Ritchie said.
Charlotte had surgery again at about 9 months old, this time to replace two heart valves. Shortly afterward, she became sick with RSV and spent five days in a Sioux Falls hospital.
After returning home, she appeared to be doing well. But she couldn't quite shake the respiratory illness's lingering effects. The Ritchies took her in for a test. They were leaving the hospital, waiting for the elevator, when Ritchie looked at her husband.
Something wasn't right. They took her back in.
“It's crazy to think after everything we put her through — open-heart surgery and all of the other things that she had to overcome — that it was something that was so out of the blue and routine that was too much for her little heart,” Ritchie said.
With Charley's death, their world changed.
Everything they had known, good and bad, had been taken away. Things like being able to sleep in or pick up and go to a movie weren't important anymore.
So they collected books.
Before Project RedButt had come Books for Charley, a drive that started when two young relatives with summer birthdays asked for books in lieu of presents so they could donate them in Charley's name.
Word spread on Facebook, and the Ritchies last year donated more than 1,200 new books to Children's Hospital and a Sioux Falls clinic to pass on to young patients.
This year, several “heart” families that Ritchie had met through blogs held their own drives and donated books in Charlotte's name to their local hospitals, taking the effort cross-country. The drive grew to more than 2,100 books and six hospitals, from Omaha to Atlanta.
Books have come from as far as Alaska and both coasts. Some have come with the name “Charley” in the title or with bear themes in recognition of “Charley Bear,” another nickname. Some have come in Spanish.
“People put a lot of thought into the books they sent,” Ritchie said.
Both the book and the monkey projects operate under Charley's Heart, a foundation the Ritchies set up to help fund research into congenital heart defects, support others with the condition, raise awareness and celebrate Charlotte's life. The books are affixed with stickers with the “Charley's Heart” logo and the address of the website that tells her story and links to those of other young donors.
The Ritchies now schedule the book drive in May, the month when Charley was born and the month when she died.
“The books definitely helped the month of May be a better month than I think it would have been,” Ritchie said.
People also volunteer to make sock monkeys. The makers sometimes add their own touches — there have been ballerina monkeys and Husker monkeys.
Matt Ritchie provided his own special contribution — one that still makes his wife laugh.
Kristen Ritchie started out the monkey project last year sewing them by hand. But it was already November, and the work was going slowly. One day, Matt Ritchie came home from work with a sewing machine.
“He was like, 'Merry Christmas,'” she said. “'You're never going to get any of these done if you have to do it all by hand.'”
Meanwhile, the messages, photographs and offers keep coming.
People Ritchie hasn't seen in years, even strangers, write to say their child read one of Charley's books in a doctor's office or took one home after an emergency room visit. A high school friend's book club in Lincoln wants to make monkeys. So does a group of women that one of her sisters met at a conference.
Last week, Ritchie received a photograph of a monkey and a message from a mom she met through the blogs, a mom with a daughter about six months older than Charley, a daughter with a heart defect.
The monkey Ritchie had sent, the mom wrote, was waiting for them when they arrived home from a doctor's appointment. They had just learned that they would have to seek a heart transplant.
A card posed next to the monkey read, “A gift from Charley to Liv on what might have been a day filled with some of the worst news ever.”
Debbie Goeser, Ritchie's mom, said the continued support — and the blog — have helped her daughter and son-in-law.
“Just to see how many people she's touched by doing this. ... I think this has made a big impact on both of them,” she said.
Kristen, now 30, and Matt, 38, welcomed a new baby in June, a son named Harrison. They had moved to Lincoln three days before.
Now nearly 5 months old, Harrison has the same happy disposition, the same crazy hair that his big sister had.
Matt Ritchie pointed out the strong resemblance in one of his favorite pictures of Charley.
“I just always loved the look on her face,” he said of Charley.
Yet many things are different. With Charlotte, they lost sleep worrying that she wasn't eating enough. With Harrison, they lose sleep because he wants to get up to eat.
Harrison already is hitting developmental milestones more quickly. Kristen Ritchie knows it will be hard when he meets the ones that his sister never reached.
She sees friends with children who were born around the same time as Charlotte. She's excited to see how they've grown, what they can do. But she wonders what Charlotte would be like, what she'd enjoy.
And she wonders what to say when people ask about her children. She asked her mom. Debbie Goeser lost her first child, a daughter, to a heart defect soon after she was born.
“You don't forget,” said Goeser, who later had four other daughters. “But I can talk about it.”
And the Ritchies, too, will continue to share Charley's story.
They'll share it with Harrison. They'll share it through books and sock monkeys.
“We'll always be a little bit broken,” Ritchie said. “But I don't think Charlotte would want us to shut down and become miserable people.”
Want to help?
To donate to Charley's Heart or sign up to make sock monkeys for Project RedButt, go to charleysheart.com.
Kristen Ritchie's blog can be found at littlemissritchie.blogspot.com.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1223, firstname.lastname@example.org