Teen's service project becomes family tradition

Shaler teen follows sister and cousin in collecting baby clothing

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At West Penn Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, premature babies lie naked in incubators with wires protruding from tiny noses and snaking beneath fragile limbs.

When Toni Acri volunteers there, she is reminded of the two girls she calls her "miracle cousins" and she is glad to continue a high school senior project that has become a family tradition.

Maggie and Emma Rooney, of Shaler, were born prematurely at 29 weeks in October 2004. Each weighed little more than 2 1/2 pounds. They spent 98 days in West Penn's neonatal intensive care unit and emerged into the arms of an extended family whose love has buoyed them into a healthy childhood.

Toni's older sister, Becca Acri, now 20 and a sophomore at Point Park University, began volunteering in the unit when she was a teen to thank the hospital for caring for her cousins. It bothered her that most of the babies in incubators didn't wear clothes.

"The babies are in a heated unit, so they don't get cold," West Penn clinical nurse Carolyn Bolton explained, but the infants are not clothed because they must be connected to intravenous lines or some are too sick and must be closely observed.

Eventually, the babies can be dressed and that can be a boost to the parents, she said.

"Providing clothes makes them finally seem like real babies to the parents," Ms. Bolton said. "We're so excited on the first day that we can dress a baby and surprise the mother. Sometimes the parents ask, 'When can I dress them?' and it's nice to [be able to] say, 'Soon.' "

The hospital provides some clothes for the babies, but Becca was concerned that some families who were less fortunate couldn't afford to buy more.

So, for her senior project at Shaler Area High School in 2007, she collected clothing to donate to the hospital.

Her goal was to collect 98 new or slightly used outfits for premature infants and other newborns, one for each day Maggie and Emma had spent in intensive care. She wrote to businesses and asked friends and family to bring clothes to a "baby shower without a pregnant woman."

Response was good locally, and Little Me, a baby clothes company with offices in New York, sent a huge box of outfits. On the twins' third birthday, Becca donated 440 outfits to West Penn Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Last year, Becca's cousin, Erica Vita, a senior at St. Joseph High School in Harrison, took over the project. Erica, who is studying pediatric nursing at the Titusville campus of the University of Pittsburgh, also volunteered in the intensive care unit and collected more than 600 pieces, Becca said.

Not one to break a family tradition, Toni, 17, of Etna, a senior at Shaler Area, inherited the project. In May, she began sending letters requesting donations and planning for the September shower, which was held at Sharp's Hill Volunteer Fire Co. in Shaler.

"Maggie and Emma are 5 now, and they get excited because they're collecting clothes for little babies," she said. The twins helped at the shower by passing out favors.

As the project grows, Toni said, so does the time commitment. "Some parts were harder than I thought," she said. "It was time-consuming and I had to do it by a specific date. There were a lot of little details." Each outfit was washed, tagged and numbered.

Garanimals Children's Clothing sent a large donation of toddler-sized clothes, giving Toni more than 1,000 outfits. UPMC Children's Hospital's Child Life Department gladly accepted the toddler items; Children's and West Penn's neonatal intensive care units shared the baby clothes.

"Sometimes, the parents can't afford or don't have time to look for clothes," Toni said. "This is one less thing for them to worry about."

Ms. Bolton, who mentored all three girls in West Penn's neonatal intensive care unit, said she read an article about the benefits of dressing premature infants.

Collecting clothing for the babies will not end with Toni's graduation. "Our goal is to do it until the twins can do it themselves," Becca said.

The Acri sisters' younger brother, Brendan, 14, a student at St. Mary of the Assumption in Hampton, will take over next year.

"He'll probably add his own touches," Toni said. "I'll be away at college, but I'll make sure he's doing it right."

She added, "Brendan visits the twins every day after school. They've come a long way since the NICU."

Freelance writer Jennifer Kissel can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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