Michelle Barry, 44, from Sydney, Australia, says she’s “just” a mom who identified a need, but to the many NICU families she has nourished throughout the years, she is so much more.
Barry runs NICU Food From the Heart, a community organization that supplies daily meals and nourishment to families who have babies in the NICU unit of her local hospital. The mom of two, who also works part-time as a work health and safety consultant in the health industry, founded the donation-run organization to not only feed the stomachs of the families in her local NICU, but also nourish their hearts.
“Going and getting a meal was something that takes the backseat when you have a baby in the NICU,” she explains. “Some parents have said they went days just eating what NICU Food provided.”
Barry, along with her friend Rebecca Ilie, were inspired to approach their local NICU with a novel idea: to become the “silver lining” in the NICU experience. They put together a proposal and worked with hospital administration to make a plan for a safe way to get food to families in the NICU. And thanks to Barry’s hard work in soliciting donations from local businesses and caring volunteers, NICU Food From The Heart has been a tremendous success.
Every morning, NICU parents can help themselves to a full spread of breakfast items available at the “Brekkie Bar.” Thanks to a weekly delivery of non-perishable donations from local families, NICU graduate families, businesses, and other community groups, Barry is able to provide a bread zone filled with fresh whole-grain breads, a snack zone with parent-popular “on-the-go” items, and a stocked fridge of dairy items, such as fresh milk, juice, yogurt, cheese, and drinks. And what started out as just a way to help the busy families have easier access to breakfast quickly became so much more.
“It wasn’t until the Brekkie Bar was established that we realized just how much this group is needed, not just with the provision of physical nourishment, [but] for the psychological wellbeing of these parents too,” Barry says. “By providing food, a social environment is being created. Mums, in particular, were taking a breath, having a cuppa, and having something to eat together. They started talking more, sharing their experiences more, and supporting each other more.”
Seeing what a difference her efforts were making, Barry worked to expand services even more. She made sure to plan gift bags, cakes, and meal spreads for holidays and special days such as Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Little things, such as robes for postpartum mothers or homemade lip balm to ward off chapped lips in the dry hospital air, bring enormous comfort to the parents who have dealt with so much stress and upheaval in their lives.
“[Since the parents] can’t be at home to recognize some of these days, I will bring a little sparkle to them instead,” she adds.
Barry also recently started a “Make a Difference” project, which is a tub that staff members or volunteers can add their own pantry items to, in order to help fill the breakfast table.
“I have worked hard to build the ‘village,’” Barry notes.
And one of the most popular services the organization oversees is “Dad’s Night,” suggested by a NICU nurse, when every Thursday night, fathers are encouraged to come to the NICU for kangaroo care with their babies and sit down for a meal together. Barry notes that typically, many of the fathers will work a full day, go straight to the NICU, grab a piece of toast, and then spend the evening with their babies. Now, however, six local restaurants are on a rotating roster to deliver hot meals every week to the dedicated dads.
Barry says she will always remember that first time she realized that her efforts were making a difference — when she was able to swap out the piece of toast a dad had been planning to eat for dinner with a hot, sizzling burger instead and was able to witness the dads relaxing and chatting as they ate.
“That was the ‘lightbulb’ moment!” she tells Babble.
Currently, Barry only works with one hospital in Sydney, but says she has been in touch with several others and is hoping to expand her services throughout Australia and into the U.S., if possible. The hardworking mother notes that even though she had two full-term babies and therefore could never fully understand what her NICU families are going through, she knows that her efforts are making a difference. Through the connection of a simple meal or hot cup of tea, Barry is able to be there through both the moments of grief and the joy of milestones reached.
“A lot of people ask me why I do this,” she says. “The answer is simply, because I care.”