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Northeast Ohio mom turns heartache from loss into lasting mission to help NICU families

Posted at 6:27 AM, Oct 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-13 06:45:10-04

CANTON, Ohio — Turning the heartache from loss into a lasting mission to help others.

Ashley McDonald is taking her pain and providing hope for parents who unexpectedly find themselves in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Her son, Houston, who was born 15 weeks early, spent more than four months in the NICU at Aultman Hospital.

"He was born 1lb 3oz. He had an infection, so I couldn't hold him for a month until after he was born," said McDonald.

McDonald never got the chance to hold her son at home.

Houston died in January 2016.

“When Houston passed away, I made him a promise that his legacy would live on and people would know who Houston was," said McDonald.

So, Ashley created "Houston's Lift Off."

"We always donate for his birthday which is August 14 and then his angel-versary, the day he passed away as I call it, January 5," said McDonald.

The non-profit provides care packages for families staying in Aultman Hospital's NICU.

"Gas gift cards, food gift cards, baby books, baby blankets, stuffed animals, hygiene items," said McDonald.

In the buckets of goodies for Halloween, a flyer featuring the organization's mission and a picture of Houston.

"As you approach the hospital with care packages for these families and you're thinking about him, what are some of the things that are going through your head or your heart?" asked Brookbank.

"I'm fulfilling my promise to my baby," said McDonald.

That promise has provided much-needed comfort for moms like Abby Burd.

“A lot of tears were shed,” said Burd.

Burd’s daughter, Audrey, was 10 weeks early.

"So, when she was born, she was 3lbs 9oz," said Burd.

Audrey spent six weeks in the hospital.

"It got very challenging navigating going to work and then having a daughter in the NICU," said Burd.

The care package from Houston's lift-off provided the family with a gas card to cover the cost of going back and forth to the hospital, as well as a keepsake bear that the family keeps within reach.

"Kind of helped motivate us a little bit and gave us kind of a light at the end of the tunnel feeling," said Burd.

Audrey is now 8 months old, and one of the many success stories to emerge from the NICU.

"Just doing phenomenal. I don't think you could, other than her size, tell that she was a premature baby," said Burd.

But not every preemie gets the chance to go home.

"What words of wisdom do you have for those moms and dads behind that wall right now?" asked Brookbank.

"The best words I can give is just to stay positive, stay faithful, always pray," said McDonald.

McDonald encourages families in the NICU to be thankful for the memories they do get and take advantage of the support from organizations like Houston's Lift Off.

"This little bit of comfort probably goes a long way for these families?" asked Brookbank.

"It does, especially to know someone else is thinking of you," said McDonald.