Many Czech maternity hospitals have joined a project aimed at helping abandoned children overcome the handicap of starting life without someone special to love and care for them. The nursing staff at these hospitals give babies whose parents give them up for adoption an extra portion of love and care doing the little things that loving parents would do for a newborn- hugging them, documenting their first days in the world, getting a print of their baby foot and recording their first smile.
These intimate details and pictures of shared moments are placed in a baby suitcase to help them trace their life’s journey later on. I spoke to Martina Wojtylová Opava co-founder of La Vida Loca, the fund supporting the project.
“Life in a Suitcase is a unique project that supports children who cannot be raised by their biological families. For children living in substitute care it can be very difficult to deal with basic questions such as “Who am I?”, Am I real?” or “How did I come into this world?”. So what we do –thanks to the nurses in maternity hospitals around the Czech Republic – is we give each of these children a children’s suitcase filled with things that help to answer those questions.”
So what is in the suitcase?
“There are all kinds of things, hand-knitted socks, a hat, a first blazer, a pacifier, a toy, and most importantly there is A Book of Life, where nurses write their own personal wishes for the baby, they stick the baby’s first photo in or a photo with themselves and the baby, sometimes the doctors also join in this activity. And, by doing so, they become “good fairies” or “angels” of these babies, because they are the ones who gave them love in the first few days or weeks of their lives.”
So they do what parents would normally do for their baby at home, document their first smile and so on….
“The suitcase is filled with information about the baby –its first smile, first tooth, first steps, first words…”
“Exactly they do what parents generally do for their children, they make the baby’s handprint or footprint and stick it into the book….so the book looks really lovely and is very similar to the albums that we make for our own children.”
How many abandoned children are there –a year – how many children are we talking about?
“Unfortunately we are talking about some 400 children, 400 newborns in the Czech Republic every year who for various reasons cannot stay with their parents or relatives, they are not always abandoned, sometimes they are even taken away from the parents.”
So the nurses help these children to later piece together their first days and weeks with information they would otherwise not have, I hear they even give them nicknames….
“Yes, yes, it is lovely and it is different in hospitals in Moravia and hospitals in Bohemia, the nurses are very active in this respect, they give them nicknames or call them “darling” or “angel”, sometimes they give them presents or a little stone for good luck that they found outside the hospital on the day that the baby was born - so it really differs, each suitcase is original.”
Most of these children later have no memories of what happened before they were adopted. Why is it important to give them something before that?
“It is very important. We cooperate with a psychologist from Olomouc and she also helps educate society about this problem. When the child does not know anything about the early days, weeks and years that child’s physical and emotional development is really harmed. Our psychologist says that a painful past is better than no past. So we try to help them to understand that their past was painful at the very beginning, but that there were people who loved them and who prepared the memories suitcase for them with love.”
“Our psychologist says that a painful past is better than no past.”
Is it not painful for them –seeing this small suitcase with a few things – a reminder of the fact that they were abandoned –that their life is just a few things in a suitcase?
“It might be, yes, it might be. On the other hand, the foster parents or social workers who take care of them are taught how to present these things to the child when they start asking questions at the age of 3 or 5 or even later. They start taking things out from the suitcase and say “Look how wonderful you were when you were born, there was a storm that day and that is probably why you are so passionate, this is a photo of the doctors and nurses who took care of you. These are the people who loved you from the very first moment …and so on. And the story makes it less painful for the baby and they understand that their journey might seem a bit different from that of other children –but they still have their own unique journey. That is important –that’s who they are. So yes, it might be painful but it is good pain, if it makes sense. ”
“The feedback is very positive, I am so happy about that, we received so many emails from foster parents and social workers and also from nurses in hospitals across the country – they love the idea and they are excited to be part of the project. They carry on filling the suitcase with information about the baby –documenting its first smile, first tooth, first steps, first words, sometimes they collect tickets from places where they took the baby for a trip, and of course they take many, many photographs and all that becomes part of the suitcase, so it is a lovely idea, the feedback is positive and if everyone does their bit then the project makes sense. And when the child is 18 and gets the suitcase then their journey in life – from birth to coming of age –should be full and hopefully filled with happy memories.”
This project started just four years ago. How many maternity hospitals are involved –and how do they communicate on the subject?
“The project actually only started a year ago, although the idea first emerged four years ago, as you said. It was Mrs. Chmelařová’s idea, she is a nurse at Vihohradska maternity hospital here in Prague, and in the beginning she prepared the suitcases from her own money because she felt sorry for the babies. So she bought the suitcases and filled them with the given baby’s photo, book and toys and gave it to the social workers when they came to take the baby elsewhere. She shared her idea with other nurses and soon other nurses from the hospital joined her. The project was officially launched by La Vida Loca eighth months ago and since December of last year we have done an enormous amount of work. Four big hospitals in the Czech Republic have now joined the project –two in Prague and two in Moravia – three other maternity hospitals are joining this month and ten more want to join by the end of the year. So the word has spread – I do not know exactly how myself, because we do not spend any money on marketing –but the word has spread.”
And what is your goal? Where would you like to see this go?
“Well, there are sixty maternity hospitals in the Czech Republic so we hope to cover all of them –hopefully by the spring of 2018. And when all hospitals join it should become a natural process for each abandoned baby in the Czech Republic to get its suitcase and the foster parents or social workers will continue filling it from that moment on.”
So this is a Czech project – you weren’t inspired abroad – it is something that emerged spontaneously?
“Exactly, it emerged spontaneously and as far as I know it is a unique European project –there are no other hospitals in Europe, as far as I know, that support their abandoned children in this way. So it is original, unique and we are very happy to be part of it.”