By Rachel Dutil | Photos by Jessica McCafferty
Grace Wojtaszek lived a mere five hours, but her life and the support her family received in the wake of their loss inspired Healing Grace, a nonprofit organization in Plattsburgh that provides support to families experiencing pregnancy and infant loss.
Sarah Munn Wojtaszek and her husband, Keith, were living in Kansas City, MO in 2008 when they learned they were expecting their first child. “We were so full of joy, expectation and happiness,” Munn Wojtaszek recalled. They were at their 20-week ultrasound, expecting to learn the gender of their baby, when they received a devastating diagnosis. The baby had a neural tube defect called anencephaly. Babies with anencephaly are born without parts of their brain and skull. It is estimated that one in 4,600 babies in the United States are born with the condition.
When the Wojtaszeks were assured their baby would not be in pain in utero or after birth they opted to carry the pregnancy to term. Grace was born on December 2, 2008 with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” playing on the radio in the operating room. That song holds special meaning and causes Munn Wojtaszek to pause and reflect every time she hears it. Grace was 4 pounds, 1 ounce and 14 inches long. “She cried,” Munn Wojtaszek remembered proudly. “Babies with anencephaly don’t always make noise, but she actually cried.”
Soon after the Wojtaszeks received the anencephaly diagnosis, they were put in touch with Patty Lewis at Alexandra’s House, a perinatal hospice in Kansas City. “She was with us every step of the way,” Munn Wojtaszek said of Lewis. Alexandra’s House is named after Lewis’s niece who died at 45 days old. Lewis worked as a cardiac nurse before she formed the hospice that helped pave the way for Healing Grace in the North Country.
“You think when you get pregnant you will have a baby. You don’t think about the millions of things that could go wrong,” Munn Wojtaszek said. Both she and her husband were stunned to learn the staggering statistics regarding pregnancy and infant loss. One in four pregnancies end in loss. One in 160 babies are stillborn. Pregnancy loss statistics are likely even higher. New York State does not require that losses prior to 20 weeks be recorded. Any miscarriage that occurs at home is not counted, even if the woman is seen by a doctor and sent home to miscarry.
In 2010 the Wojtaszeks welcomed a healthy baby girls, Anastazia, and returned to the North Country to be closer to their families.
Munn Wojtaszek soon realized the area had no organization to provide support for families like hers. “I kept saying I wanted to start an Alexandra’s House,” she said. During a conversation in 2019 a friend asked her, “Why don’t you just do it?” Healing Grace: Center for Hope & Healing was founded in 2020 with the encouragement of friends and the support of family. “From all we went through in Kansas City and many years of talking about it, I did it,” she exclaimed.
Munn Wojtaszek gives full credit to Alexandra’s House and the people she met through the organization with inspiring the formation of Healing Grace and the services it provides. A teddy bear, provided to the couple by Alexandra’s House has a steel heart locket urn that contains part of Grace’s remains.
Healing Grace offers similar remembrance items such as birthweight stuffed animals that are custom made to the weight of the baby, customized wall plaques that say “My baby is playing among the stars” and angel heartbeat bears. If you receive a life limiting diagnosis, you can record your baby’s heartbeat and it will live inside the bear. Healing Grace loans out special recording devices for families to facilitate the process.
Peer support groups for families who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss are held on the second Saturday of every month. “We can’t walk this walk without having the support of someone who has gone before us,” Munn Wojtaszek noted, adding that connecting with other families is mutually beneficial for her and the families she works with. “That’s the whole model of Healing Grace. It’s connection through shared loss.”
Comfort boxes for families experiencing loss are one of the most impactful services Healing Grace provides. In their time of sadness and grief, families can feel isolated, and the comfort boxes are a compassionate reminder they are not alone. Champ boxes, provided to local hospitals, contain toiletry items, warm socks, tea, a packet of seeds to plant in honor of the baby, and a letter introducing Healing Grace. Bohdi’s Totes are for children who are struggling with grief and loss. Miscarriage kits are a new offering that provide medical supplies for women who will miscarry at home. RW Walker Funeral Home is working with Healing Grace to provide biodegradable containers so families can bury their baby’s remains.
Healing Grace is currently searching for a social worker or licensed mental health care provider to offer grief counseling through Give Grace Counseling Center, the for-profit arm of the organization which Munn Wojtaszek hopes will become a full-service community grief resource center.
This fall, Healing Grace will work in the Saranac Lake School District to start a children’s grief group. The program will be facilitated by the school social worker and a licensed mental health counselor and will serve as a model for other school districts.
In 1951, Anna and Robert Chase – Munn Wojtaszek’s grandparents —had a baby, Mary Ann, who was born with anencephaly. Healing Grace honors not only Grace’s life, but also that of her grandparents and Mary Ann.
Munn Wojtaszek is grateful for the support her organization has seen from the North Country through monetary donations from local businesses and individuals, grant funding and support from the Clinton County Legislature.
“Healing Grace isn’t anything without Grace,” Munn Wojtaszek said, adding that she feels Grace is with her all the time. Her daughter Anastazia is now 13 and daughter Julia is 10. “They are proud little sisters and they understand the importance of what Healing Grace is and does for North Country families. This is the breath of my daughter,” Munn Wojtaszek said of Healing Grace. “I am overwhelmed by what this organization can do.”
Cultivating Hope By Rachel Dutil
The legacy of William and Alice Miner continues to benefit the North Country nearly 100 years after William Miner’s death in 1930. The Chazy Central Rural School, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, and Miner Institute all continue to receive annual contributions from the William H. Miner Foundation, which manages the trust William Miner set up in 1923.
In 1903, William and Alice Miner came to Chazy to build Heart’s Delight Farm on the 144-acre property William’s uncle, John Miner, bequeathed to him. The death of William Henry Miner, Jr. in 1902 at just two weeks old likely acted as a catalyst for them to come to Chazy and build, not only a model farm, but one of the first rural centralized school districts in New York State, a state-of-the-art hospital and, of course. Alice’s Colonial house museum.
In 2022, The Alice T. Miner Museum partnered with Miner Institute and Healing Grace: Center for Hope and Healing to host a fundraising event at the museum to benefit Healing Grace, an organization which would have benefitted William and Alice Miner had something like it been available for them in their time of grief.
The three organizations will team up for the second annual Cultivating Hope fundraising event for Healing Grace on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023 at The Alice T. Miner Museum on Route 9 in Chazy. The event will begin at 5 pm with a short program, live music performed by Taylor LaValley, and light refreshments
This partnership helps to pay homage to William H. Miner Jr. and carry on the incredible legacy of philanthropy in the North Country that the Miners began more than 100 years ago.
Healing Grace Center for Hope and Healing
62 Brinkerhoff St., Suite 104
Plattsburgh, NY 12901