When Kristin Moan’s twin daughters Hayden and Dylan were born at 23 weeks gestation, she and her husband Eric were encouraged by a nurse to use a stuffed animal as a way to measure their daughters’ growth in weekly photos. Eric returned to the NICU with two Potato Head toys instead, thinking they could be more easily sanitized. For the next 119 days that the girls spent in the NICU, friends and family eagerly awaited the Potato Head photos as a way for them to follow along with the girls’ growth. The photoshoots became something Kristin and Eric looked forward to as well.
Six years later, Kristin has managed to turn a traumatic event into a positive movement with her nonprofit The Potato Head Project. Each year since their NICU experience, the Moan family and their volunteers have sent hundreds of care packages to other families with micro-preemies in the NICU. The gift bags consist of Potato Heads as well as various other items, such as micro-preemie leggings or knit hats for the babies, and hand sanitizers, Kleenex, Advil, water bottles or My Preemie Baby books for the parents. Since its creation, the nonprofit has sent out over 2,000 packages to families all across the United States. Kristin credits the immense support she has had from her family and friends for her ability to help provide support to families experiencing the same trauma she went through.
“We had no choice to go through what we did, but we are able to help others, and in turn it helps us heal,” Kristin said. “We receive messages about how we are helping others and that is a feeling you could never explain.”
Can you describe what The Potato Head Project does and what your role is?
Our girls were born at one pound each. They were born at 23 weeks gestation. When we were in the NICU, one of the nurses told us some of the parents would bring in a small stuffed animal to take pictures with their baby every week to watch them grow. As you can imagine, a one pound baby, it’s hard to imagine they ever will grow, but they do. So my husband went to the store and he came back with a Potato Head with the thought process that it could be sanitized, wiped down, kept in the NICU in a clean, sterile environment. Over time, we took photos and everybody outside the NICU got to watch our girls grow. Maybe three months or so down the road, another family friend had a micro-preemie and we sent a Potato Head out to them. It was a fun thing that people liked to follow and kind of got a little bit of attention from other friends and family, and then another micro-preemie would be born and then another one and another one and so on and so on. All of a sudden we were packaging up hundreds of packages a year and sending them out to people all across the country. It’s silly because it’s a Potato Head. Everybody knows how big a Potato Head is so they’re able to capture how small these babies are. But for the parents who are receiving them, it’s really kind of saying, ‘hey, there’s people out there who have been through what you’ve been through and here’s just a little something that maybe will get you by, one thing every week maybe you could look forward to.’
As we found that it was helping other people and providing them hope and giving them something to look forward to, we just knew we had to do more so we became an official 501(c)(3).
What kind of feedback have you received from the parents who have gotten Potato Heads?
The feedback has been amazing. The parents have said it gives them a sense of belonging, a sense of hope. The NICU is an incredibly dark place and when you’re there, most people never knew they were going to be there. Most people had no idea what a one pound baby looked like or what a two pound baby looked like. For them, it gives them something to look forward to. It gives them a place where they know they can reach out and find people who have been through that same traumatic event.
What is it like for you to be able to involve your kids in your work?
For us it’s extremely important that at all times they understand where they came from. We don’t ever use that as a negative tool. We try to be very positive in that we’re very lucky to have gone through what we did and to be able to provide other people with some of the hope and structure that we didn’t have. We know that was important. When Amazon packages show up at the door, and we have to stuff boxes, and we go to the post office, or supplies come in and Potato Heads are crammed in every closet in our home, they know what that’s all for and they know it’s for these sick babies. It’s really good to have them involved and I think it will keep them connected to where they came from.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
We actually are hosting what we hope will pretty much fund us through most of the year. On April 18, we are hosting our All the Small Things [fundraiser]. We use All the Small Things because in the NICU the babies are small usually, but also it’s all these little things that people can do for families in the NICU that are so important, like a tiny care package or a gas card or a parking pass — all these things that to the outside world are small but to the NICU families are huge. We’re having a big event at The Nerdery in Bloomington. We did one in January of 2018 and it was awesome to see the hundreds of people that came with their NICU babies and their micro-preemies. We had superheroes and games and food and a silent auction. We started planning it a few months ago and we’re kind of ramping up and starting to solicit silent auction items and get DJs on board and stuff like that, so we’re super excited.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
I think the most rewarding part has been giving these families something we didn’t have. It’s not to say that people didn’t reach out to us or there wasn’t a person here who understood, but social media has given us the ability to reach people and to say ‘hey, you know what, we are a story, we are a success story, and we want to help you get through it.’ So for us it’s been a huge part of our healing process. It’s been a huge part of providing hope for other families. It makes us so happy to know that we’re able to make a difference.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I think that in the world of the NICU, there is no right or wrong. There is no one story that’s completely relatable to another and every situation is so much about that family. To be able to bring people together that their number one similar factor is the NICU, and be able to connect them and have this community of people, it’s just amazing what you can do with strength in numbers. Some of my best friends now are people who also had micro-preemies and they help with the foundation and they go to the events with me for other nonprofits. Just involving ourselves in this world that is so undervalued. I don’t feel like it gets enough exposure so it’s been amazing to be a part of trying to bring that to light and showing people that this stuff is really happening, and it’s not just about the people it’s immediately effecting because at any time it could effect you as well. Babies aren’t born premature based on what job you have or what city you live in. It’s a traumatic thing and it’s very unfortunate, but as the numbers of babies being born at this gestation is rising, and the number of babies surviving is rising, the need for resources is also there. I feel really blessed and happy that I can be a part of one of those resources.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I would say that if you want to make a difference or you want to help people, you just do it. You take what’s passionate and you find a way, no matter how small it is. We could have sent out 20 packages and I feel like our story still would have been successful, but we sent out 2,000 and that number is just rising. So no matter where we end this at, if our kids decide to continue it, or other people decide to continue it, it will still have been successful and it still would have had purpose and it still would have helped people at a time where there is very little for others to actually do something for them.
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