The Memory Box Artist Program is a volunteer effort by artists nationally and worldwide who provide hand-painted boxes filled with mementos for families of newborns who pass away in a hospital. The memory boxes act as a substitute for an envelope that often contain the personal effects of the child, giving loved ones something to hold onto.
President of the local society of decorative painters and chief organizer of the Vintage Craft Guild of Yadkin County Allison Leeds said memory boxes affirm life and give loved ones something to hold onto in the midst of pain and bereavement.
Mementos of the child, including photographs, footprints, locks of hair, the child’s hospital bracelet, certificates, the measuring tape showing the height and weight figures and sometimes a small blanket, are often placed in the memory box.
Sometimes artists also use molding materials to make impressions of the infant’s tiny hands and feet to place in the memory box.
Leeds, along with the Triad decorative painting chapter of which she is a member, works specifically with the memory box program at Brenners Children’s Hospital. The memory box program works by hospital staff identifying where there is a need and communicating it to the artist. The artist then works busily to fulfill the need.
In this way, artists are able use their “gifts and skills to show others they care after the extremely personal loss and grief felt after the death of an infant,” said Leeds.
She added, “Recipients treasure these boxes, feeling comforted by knowing that someone cared and knew how much their babies meant to them.”
The construction of memory boxes begins with artists shaping them from papier mache. Next, they are made sturdy by sealant; then, their surfaces are sanded and prepared for painting. The boxes come in a variety of shapes including oval, round, square and star-shaped, just not rectangular. Finally, they are finished inside and out with sealant. Some boxes are lined with fabric, others have painted interiors. Some are signed and some are not.
Motifs painted on memory boxes include bears, bunnies, toys, trains, sports, florals, etc. Leeds personally paints themes of florals, lanterns and nautical themes which can be displayed year-round, she said.
Brenners Children’s Hospital serves all ages from birth to age 18, both boys and girls. As a result, Leeds said, “We need a wide variety of designs.”
Leeds said that some children are stillborn and many die each day, both state and nationwide. Memory boxes act to provide “tangible pieces of comfort,” she said.
In fact, the memory box painting program so inspired the Jonesville artist that she said a personal goal is to soon get a group of her former local students painting them, once her former Jonesville store, Worth Remembering, re-opens in June. She said anyone wanting to participate in making and painting the memory boxes may join in.
Leeds said a program named Quilts of Hope is behind some of her inspiration to participate in the memory box project. It is a quilting program at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital that touched hers and her late husband’s life, Kent Suddreth, after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
She never forgot the kindness of a stranger during their time of need and said the quilt knitted for her husband was “amazing.” In fact, the organization found out more about him and the stranger’s kindness resulted in a quilt that matched his personality as an outdoors man, she said.
Leeds said she wanted to pass on that type of caring in a similar respect, so as a result, she chose to by working as an artist in the memory box program, to also help give comfort to those grieving.
Leeds said the memory box need is greater than she could have ever imagined. In particular, there is a need for those to help with memory boxes who do not mind doing the basics of sealing them, often the most time-consuming part.
For more information on memory boxes, visit www.decorativepainters.org.
Tanya Chilton may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @TanyaTDC.