As the holidays approach, you may be contemplating the toys you’ll be getting for the children in your life or donating to kids in need. Well, this month, one woman in Visalia is holding a toy drive, but for parents—sort of. She’s working to donate toys to families affected by one of the San Joaquin Valley’s most concerning health trends.
When Ami Alvarez was born, he weighed just one pound. His mother Ashlee Alvarez had been diagnosed with a life-threatening complication and had to deliver Ami early—at just over 25 weeks. “He was so small and so skinny and the skin is translucent, you can see all the veins, and his eyes were still closed,” she says.
Ami was a micro preemie, a baby born before 26 weeks of gestation. He spent the first three months of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. Alvarez and her husband spent practically every day with him, but she still remembers how slowly he seemed to be progressing. She says they felt unable to do anything but wait and hope. “We definitely just took it day by day,” she says.
Now, Ami’s almost three, and a smiley, bubbly little boy. But Alvarez still remembers that early feeling of helplessness. So she’s doing something to keep other parents from going through what she did. “I have been collecting Potato Heads, Mr. and Mrs.,” she says, pointing me to three huge bins in her garage.
Potato Heads: Those goofy plastic dolls with detachable limbs and googly eyes. Alvarez has amassed over 100 of them. They’re not for preemies, but for their parents. They can place the dolls in the incubators next to their babies and take pictures to track their growth. It’s a small thing with a big impact. “The thought behind it all is when you get to look back to look at those weekly pictures, or even just week by week, you get to see the growth of your preemie,” she says. “It gives the family hope.”
She hopes to supply CRMC and Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia with enough Potato Heads for every baby in the NICU on Christmas, and for many other high-risk babies throughout the year. She collected over 200 in 2016 through toy drives, and is aiming even higher this holiday season.
Alvarez wasn’t the first to come up with this idea. Last fall, she was searching online for ways to give back to the NICUs that had helped her when she came across the Potato Head Project. It’s a non-profit in Minnesota run by Kristin Moan, a mom of two twins born even earlier than Ami was.
Moan says the seed was planted when the twins were in the NICU in 2013, and her husband bought two Potato Heads on a whim. As she told me during a Skype conversation, their first picture was a social media hit. “Everybody every week asked when we were going to post the next one and the one after that, and so we continuously took photos through the NICU,” she says.
After that, a friend with a micro preemie asked Moan for a Potato Head, then a friend of a friend, and the calls kept coming. She now holds fundraisers to collect the dolls and cover shipping charges. Moan estimates she’s donated around 1,000 Potato Heads to parents in 48 states. “It's such a cheap plastic toy, but to all these families, it gives them hope and it gives them the ability to see past where they're at right now,” she says.
Ashlee Alvarez is not technically affiliated with the Potato Head Project, but she consulted with Moan on the local effort.
The Potato Head Project resonates, perhaps, because it’s not about the toy. It’s about hope at a time when optimism and certainty are in short supply. Fresno mom Deanna Falls felt that in early 2016. She found the project online and reached out to Moan after delivering her daughter Sabrina at 28 weeks. “It gave me hope that she could be this tiny little size, like a Mrs. Potato Head, and grow into a child and a baby,” Falls says.
Tracy Gong is a NICU parent representative at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, and she too was a preemie mom. Her hospital doesn’t participate specifically in the Potato Head Project, but she says helping parents to see the positives day by day is critical to helping them cope. “Some of our parents are here for months and months and months, or babies are,” Gong says, “and if you're sitting here day in and day out, you don't always see all those little milestones.”
Ashlee Alvarez made it through Ami’s time in the NICU without a potato head. Now, however, the toy is offering her hope with another milestone: As they sit together assembling Mr. Potato Head piece by piece, she’s using it to help Ami learn how to talk.