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Arizona farmers turn grief to outreach

Shayla Van Hofwegen remembers the excitement she and husband Arie felt as they prepared to welcome a set of twins – a boy and a girl – into their lives in 2010.

However, complications from preterm labor threw their world into unthinkable devastation. Their son, Arie James, was stillborn at 22 weeks. Their daughter, Hadilyn Faith, lived only a few short minutes.

Shayla remembers the despair and anger she felt. She also remembers some pivotal words from a friend: make purpose out of your pain.

“I have never heard that phrase before but I thought ‘Oh my word, this is totally true, and I can do something good with this and I can focus on others,’” Shayla said.

 

That focus has found a whole new purpose as Shayla created the Owl Love You Forever foundation designed to offer comfort to families who lost a child during pregnancy or at birth. The owl reference is a tribute to their twins, whose bedroom was decorated in a gender-neutral owl theme.

“I threw myself into helping others who were going to experience this and felt I was the perfect person to do this because I was there,” she said. “Even if I didn’t have words to take their pain away, I could at least answer questions if they have them. I know I had a ton of questions. It slowly healed my heart from that anger stage and allowed me to move forward.”

Life at the Van Hofwegen house is nonstop these days. They are busy as dairy farmers in the town of Paloma Ranch, Arizona. Arie is a fourth-generation farmer who works with his three brothers and father. They also are the parents of four children under the age of 5.

Shayla also keeps plenty busy with her foundation, which includes support from five friends who serve as board members. There are several other volunteers who help create leave-behind boxes at hospitals that can be given to families in need. The box includes items such as handsewn blankets that can be used for burial and a stuffed owl to provide comfort.

“We hear that many parents or siblings sleep with the owl,” Shayla said. “It’s something to clutch and cry into.”

Momentum for the program has grown beyond Shayla’s expectations. The foundation has distributed more than 2,000 boxes to 25 hospitals throughout Arizona, but she is convinced this concept can go further. Shayla said she has been asked by people if they can start a chapter in other states.

“I feel like we haven’t even hit a huge percentage of the market,” she said. “It has momentum going that I never thought would happen. I thought I would just donate to the hospital where we lost our babies and it’s taken off for sure.”

Shayla said the foundation has helped ease the pain of losing her twins. She often hears from grieving families who express gratitude knowing someone provided comfort during their difficult time.

“That’s what keeps me going,” she said.

Shayla also wants to emphasize her story definitely has a happy ending.

“It’s not something people like to talk about; babies aren’t supposed to die,” she said. “People get so sad hearing our story, but I always say, ‘Don’t feel pity for me.’ We adopted a daughter and we now have three biological sons, including another set of twins, ironically, that God brought our way. It’s a happy story. It really is.

“There are sad parts, but I want people to see the joy that has come out of it, too.”