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April 17, 2013

A gift of hope

http://www.jewishjournal.com/bar_and_bat_mitzvahs/article/a_gift_of_hope

Taylor Zimelman, 13, was born five weeks premature. Her mitzvah project collects ­knitted caps from around the world to donate to Cedars-Sinai’s neo-natal ­intensive care unit at the Maxine Dunitz Children’s Health Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Taylor Zimelman, 13, was born five weeks premature. Her mitzvah project collects ­knitted caps from around the world to donate to Cedars-Sinai’s neo-natal ­intensive care unit at the Maxine Dunitz Children’s Health Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Cotton caps in shades of pastel pink and sky blue are standard go-to gifts for a newborn baby. But for Steven and Jodi Zimelman, whose now-13-year-old daughter, Taylor, spent the first three months of her life in an incubator in Cedars-Sinai’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Maxine Dunitz Children’s Health Center, one particular pink cap will remain an everlasting symbol of comfort and hope.  

“[Taylor] was a sick baby, born five weeks premature, weighing 3 pounds, 4 ounces and with a multitude of health problems, including two holes in her heart,” Jodi Zimelman said. “She had to stay [at Cedars-Sinai] until she was 6 pounds — big enough to undergo heart surgery. You see all these little babies in their incubators and you just want them to be OK. We had good days and bad days, and it was a very scary, very tenuous time.” 

Few friends came to visit them in the hospital during that long, lonely period, but one bright spot came in the form of a little pink hat given to them by Dorothy Williams, who was the parent liaison in the NICU during Taylor’s stay, acting as a connection between the parents, doctors and hospital staff. 

“People are often overwhelmed by the situation and aren’t sure what to do,” Williams said, referring to the lack of support given to parents of infants in the NICU. “They don’t want to give gifts in case the baby doesn’t live because they don’t want to make things even harder for the family. They can’t imagine that pain and often they’ll just go away. The cap gives a statement of affirmation to the parents. It says your baby is worth enough for somebody else to go out of his or her way and do something special for them. It’s a way to say, ‘Welcome, little one; we care deeply about you — whatever length of life you have.’ ” 

But not only did Taylor live, she thrived. The baby that doctors predicted would suffer lifelong debilitating health problems (including not being able to walk) is now a state champion gymnast competing on the national level; last year she placed seventh on uneven bars in her age group. The only evidence of her surgery is a small scar running down her chest. 

“Taylor’s cardiologist calls it her ‘line of courage,’ ” Jodi Zimelman said. 

Last month, Taylor celebrated her bat mitzvah at Temple Isaiah, and, as part of her required mitzvah project, decided to help other newborn babies in need. In the months leading up to her big moment on the bimah, Taylor kickstarted a global initiative to collect handmade baby hats to donate to the NICU at Cedars-Sinai.

“Now that I’m healthy, I felt like I should give back to Cedars-Sinai, and donating caps seemed the perfect way to do that,” Taylor said of her philanthropic undertaking. Family and friends also formed a knitting circle and made their own caps. 

Taylor posted her project on the knitting and crocheting social network site Ravelry.com. Soon, hats came pouring in from knitters living all over the world. So far, Taylor has collected more than 625 caps in all shapes, colors and sizes; 500 of them have been delivered to Cedars-Sinai, with more to come. 

“Someone sent one cap with little ears that is really cute, and another person made a cap that was like a cupcake with a little red pompom on the top for a cherry,” Taylor said of her favorites caps. 

“Posting her project on the site took it to a whole other level,” Jodi Zimelman added. “We received caps from Japan, Canada, Hawaii. One Jewish woman sent us 10 caps plus a sterling silver Jewish star. The project has really illustrated the goodness of people in the world. It’s also taught Taylor the meaning of performing a mitzvah and of helping others perform the mitzvah of giving back.” 

Cedars-Sinai NICU parent liaison Linda Rosenberg, who is also in charge of facilitating donations to the center, works with a team of volunteers to distribute the baby caps, which are washed and bagged and available at the NICU’s Good Beginnings Library, a home away from home for patients and their families. 

“It’s such a caring, sweet thing to want to give back and let these families know that someone cares,” Rosenberg said. “What makes it extra special is that Taylor is a graduate of the [NICU]. It’s truly a pay-it-forward gesture. Taylor is touching the lives of so many that are here now.”

For Williams, and all the nurses on staff, Taylor is more than just an inspiring NICU success story — she’s a survivor. 

“It’s just very exciting to see that kind of change and to know how fragile she had been and how beautifully she’s grown up,” Williams said. “To be facing her bat mitzvah and also coordinating a whole project like this is just huge. She’s turned into such a lovely young woman. She has weathered it all in terms of her health, her compassion and caring for other people.”

As for Taylor, these caps are just the beginning of what she hopes will be a lifelong journey filled with many mitzvot. 

“My project has inspired me to give more,” she said. “I saw many families with happy, smiling faces, and I got to show them that their babies are going to make it and grow up to be healthy. I want to make more people smile because that will make me feel that I am doing an important thing in their lives — giving them the gift of hope.” 

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