Melissa West had only three months to cuddle her youngest son, Briggs, before he died of SIDS.
But the Norfolk resident’s desire to keep saying his name prompted her to co-found an organization to educate the public about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and the importance of safe sleep. Her work with that organization — the Briggs & Barrett Project — led to her being named as the 2019 Norfolk Area Person of the Year by the Daily News and Elkhorn Valley Bank.
“I carry a lot of pain inside,” West said of the grief she feels over the loss of her son. “But I cope with that by helping others.”
West lost her son to SIDS on Jan. 18, 2018.
Shortly after his death, Allison Uecker — another grief-stricken mother whose son, Barrett, died of SIDS only weeks earlier — reached out to her. Both felt the desire to do something, so they channeled their grief into the creation of the Briggs & Barrett Project.
“We wanted to have every baby that left the hospital leave with an Owlet Smart Sock,” West said.
Owlet Smart Socks are a consumer device that track a baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels, sending an alert to a paired smartphone when an anomaly is detected.
“I can’t tell you that an Owlet would’ve saved Briggs’ life, but ... if he would’ve been wearing an Owlet, I could’ve been notified on my phone the minute his heart rate and oxygen level dropped,” West said.
Since the Owlet is a consumer device and not a medical device, West said they were unable to partner with the Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk to make that goal happen. But they were able to make sure all newborns left the hospital with a Halo Swaddle Sack and a copy of “Sleep Baby: Safe and Snug,” a book to educate new parents on the importance of safe sleep.
“That’s what we started out doing, and it just kind of grew from there,” West said.
Among its current efforts, the organization partners with the maker of Owlet Smart Socks. For every Owlet purchased through the Briggs & Barrett Project website, the company provides two of the devices to be donated to families that can’t afford one.
At a recent fundraising event for the organization, West said they learned from the CEO and founder of Owlet how much of an impact the Briggs & Barrett Project is making: Nebraska tops the ranking of states doing internet searches of Owlet Smart Socks, and it ranks second for searches on safe sleep.
“These statistics prove that what we are doing is working,” West said.
West said she hears at least one personal testimony every other week that reaffirms the success of the mission she and Uecker began together.
“When we first had this idea that we wanted to do something with the Owlets, when we talked about this two years ago, I thought if we could just get one success story a year, if we could help save one life a year or every five years, how amazing that would be?” she said.
West said the organization has short- and long-term goals; ultimately, she eventually would like to see greater results of their efforts to educate on safe sleep stretch beyond Nebraska’s borders.
Despite all of the work she has done to raise the profile of the Briggs & Barrett Project, West refuses to accept any honors on her own behalf. She said without Uecker, their families and respective angels — Briggs and Barrett — as well as the organization’s board, volunteers, donors, sponsors and the community, the achievements of the Briggs & Barrett Project would not have been possible.
“I want to make it clear that what I do I don’t do alone,” she said.
West said she merely is a woman with a mind that never stops churning with ideas and who is surrounded and supported by a lot of talented individuals who share her vision.
“I have a lot of big ideas, a lot of big dreams and a lot of big goals, so you end up hearing my voice,” she said. “But this project wouldn’t be possible without everybody that is associated with our board — that includes Allison and Barrett in heaven, too.”
West said she and her husband, Shawn, have a “blended family” that includes sons Brock, 15, Brody, 8, Braxton, 4, and Briggs “in heaven.” Efforts to give the Briggs & Barrett Project wings began only weeks after the loss of her baby boy, which has prompted some to tell her that she hasn’t allowed herself to grieve.
To them, she says, “Everybody grieves differently. This is the way I grieve. I could sit and feel sorry for myself and watch life pass by, but I choose to thrive. That’s one of my big things I keep telling myself. I’m going to thrive through this for my husband and my marriage, my job, my career, my kids and this community. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. That is what I’m going to do with Briggs’ passing.”