Turning Love Into Service
Mother Teresa said, “Love cannot remain by itself—it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service.” Catie and Scott Swenson had a vision to do just this—not only love but serve. Out of their own personal struggle, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, a non-profit organization created to provide support for families of infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), was born.
The name of the organization comes from Psalm 139. “This entire Psalm became a prayer and a promise we clung to when we got the call from the doctor in December 2016 that our baby, SJ, may have had spina bifida,” Catie recalled. “It started off about SJ,” she continued, “but after he was born, it became a reminder that our big boys are also fearfully and wonderfully made with resilience, strength, tolerance, love, hope, and energy!
And we too are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Father and a Creator that has love and strength enough to see us through every obstacle and hard day. We had so many people who loved us through every minute.”
Scott was playing on (and eventually assistant coaching) a local Texarkana hockey team, and Catie helped with marketing and sales for the team. Through hockey, the couple met and were married, and they just celebrated 15 years of marriage in November, and now have three boys, Grant (12), Tyler (9), and SJ (5).
In 2017, Samuel James (SJ) Swenson was born ten weeks early, weighing in at two pounds, three ounces. This led to three different NICU visits over 65 days. “We had about three months of pretty scary times before he was born,” Catie shared. “There were weeks that were pretty unsteady. However, that unsteady feeling never got to be too much. It really was met with peace every time.” Surrounded by their family and church family at City Church, the family made it through that difficult time. SJ is now thriving.
One act of kindness was the catalyst, encouraging the Swensons to turn their own love into service. While SJ was in the NICU in Dallas, a friend of Scott’s who had just lost his dad to brain cancer and had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor himself, left a gas card and words of encouragement on their back porch. As she drove back to Dallas, Catie made a decision. “I called Scott and told him how overwhelmed I was with the outpouring of people who were fighting their own very hard battles but loving us through ours. I told him that day I had no idea what it would look like, but I felt God was going to use our situation to help people experiencing a NICU journey.”
They tried off and on for the next couple of years to get something going, but it seemed every time, SJ would have a setback, putting their dream on hold. But one idea during that time was a backpack. They brainstormed a list of items they felt would most help NICU families cope. They would fill the backpacks, or as they called them, Blessing Bags, with the items and pass them on.
Fast forward to the Fall of 2020 when everything was closed. A family close to the Swensons posted on Facebook that she was going to need an emergency C-section because of high blood pressure, and her baby was only 28 weeks. “It was all too close to home,” Catie said, “and we knew then God’s timing had come. He opened every door to help fund the Blessing Bags and Fearfully and Wonderfully Made was off the ground.” They delivered their first Blessing Bag in January 2021.
The very first Blessing Bag was given to Katie Lorance, who remains extremely grateful. “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made will always be very special to us. Our family was the first recipient of the blessing bag. It was a very pivotal and impactful moment in our NICU journey for several weeks when we met. It’s difficult to remain positive when you deliver early and you’re not experiencing a typical birth—where you get to meet your baby immediately, your baby comes home quickly, and your family gets to meet them. This ministry allowed us to feel supported during a time of uncertainty, prayed for, and there were also very thoughtful resources in the bag. We have continued to have their support two years later post NICU. We are forever grateful for a community who continues to support this ministry,” Lorance said.
Blessing bags, stamped with SJ’s tiny footprints as the ministry’s logo, are designed with the purpose of supplying parents/guardians with all they will need while their baby is in the hospital. They are gender neutral, and the only variation is how many gift cards go into each bag. That is determined by the information the Swensons receive from the family as to how long the infant is expected to be in the hospital. Each bag starts with about $75.00 worth of gift cards, making each a value of about $250.00. Families with babies who are super early or seem very sick will receive more gift cards. If a family lives more than an hour away, gas cards will be provided. They also all include a devotional and a journal written specifically for a NICU journey. There are hygiene items for the moms, and there is even a roll of quarters for trips to the vending machines or laundry mat. “We want the bag to feel like it was built with that specific mom in mind,” remarked Catie. “One of my favorite items in each bag is a handwritten card of encouragement. These cards are written by Christian ladies who have walked through their own NICU journey. It’s a beautiful way for them to speak hope into a family sitting in a NICU room. It’s also healing for the mommas writing them.”
A Sibling Bag was added to the mix in June 2021. “This has always been an important piece for us,” Catie shared. “Having two little boys at home while having another one in the NICU is a lot. We would never want our big boys to feel like they were forgotten. We knew other parents experiencing this dynamic could use an opportunity to check in with those ‘big’ kids at home. Grant and Tyler, our own kids, actually pay for a book with their own money and write a note inside the books for the children receiving them.”
Because all NICU stories do not end the same way, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made also has an extension to their ministry called Remember Me with Joy. The ministry accepts donations for babies, pregnancies, and young children who have passed away. This came to fruition because of sweet Mabrey, another baby in the NICU who experienced complications. Lauren Hilton, Mabrey’s mom, stated, “Although there are so many things to share, what I can say for certain is being a recipient of the ministry meant a lot to my husband and me. Knowing you’re not alone in such a vulnerable state supplies such a comfort.” Lauren has been courageous enough to go on and serve the NICU nurses and volunteers in many ways, and she is another example of love coupled with service.
With the support of local churches, businesses, and individuals, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made has delivered over 250 Blessing Bags to NICU families in the past two years. In September, they gave over $40,000 to the Christus Foundation to pay for 20 NicView cameras at Christus St. Michael NICU. This will give parents peace of mind, allowing them to check on their babies when they cannot physically be at the hospital. In 2023, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made will offer a scholarship to students who were at one time in the NICU or students planning to enter the neonatal field. The reach of this ministry continues to grow, making a real difference in our community. To learn how you can get involved, visit fearfullyandwonderfullymade.co.
“I cannot explain the feeling I have when I get to meet and pray with a NICU family,” Catie shared, “but the most joy comes from getting a picture at three months, six months, and even a year later of momma and daddy beaming over their thriving baby! Or even if it is just a text that says, ‘Will you have the prayer warriors pray for our baby? There is a test coming or something we are concerned about.’ For them to know that we celebrate with them in the wins, but we also have their backs on the hard days… man, that will make my heart explode!”