We all have been given a gift. It’s how we choose to use it that matters.
That was the message Briggs & Barrett Project co-founder Melissa West delivered to the crowd that had gathered at the Norfolk Country Club on Monday evening as she accepted the honor of the 2019 Norfolk Area Person of the Year.
West was named as the recipient of the honor — presented by the Daily News and Elkhorn Valley Bank — in late December. She was nominated, in part, for the work she has done with the Briggs & Barrett Project.
West co-founded the organization with fellow Norfolkan Allison Uecker in 2018. Uecker had lost her 3-month-old son, Barrett, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in December 2017 and reached out to West when she lost her infant son, Briggs, to the same condition only weeks later.
Both women channeled their grief into the creation of the Briggs & Barrett Project to raise awareness of SIDS and the importance of safe sleep.
Since the nonprofit organization was established, West said it had raised more than $350,000 and purchased $276,000 in Owlet Smart Socks, a consumer device that tracks a baby’s heart rate and oxygen level and sends an alert to a paired smartphone if an anomaly is detected.
The organization partners with the maker of Owlet Smart Sock to make the device available to more new parents who might not otherwise be able to afford it. It has donated more than 920 Owlets in the organization's brief time in existence.
The Briggs & Barrett Project also has provided Halo Swaddle Sacks and a book written by West — “When Baby Sleeps” — to educate new parents on the importance of safe sleep.
In accepting the accolade, West expressed gratitude to her family: her husband, Shawn, and sons Brock, Brody, Braxton and Briggs; her parents, Neil and Mary Ritz; and extended family members who came to Monday’s event. She also expressed her thanks to Uecker, the Briggs & Barrett Project board and supporters in the community for the organization’s accomplishments.
“It takes a team to make an impact, and that’s what we’re doing together,” West said.
West said she was nervous about accepting the title because she doesn't do the work she does for recognition but rather to make a difference in the lives of others.
Her enthusiasm to help raise funds for Embrace Park drew the attention of Emily Afrank, the 2018 Norfolk Area Person of the Year. Afrank said she nominated West for the 2019 award because of West's passion for improving the lives of others.
"When I heard the tragic loss of Briggs, it just broke my heart," Afrank said. "I just thought to myself and prayed, 'Please, God, don't let her lose her fire.' She's an amazing woman. The community needs her. And she took that tragedy and has done amazing work and still asks, 'How can we help?'"
West's giving spirit was exemplified during her acceptance as she spoke about marking Briggs' birthday each year by doing something special for the community. She began raising funds for an Impressions Swing that will be located at one of the city's parks.
The special type of swing allows parents or caregivers to face children to interact during play. Before Monday night, West had raised $1,210 toward the cost of the $7,600 project.
During Monday night's event, West received two additional donations — one from Norfolk Noon Kiwanis and one from Norfolk Iron & Metal, where West and her husband work — totaling $1,800 to go toward the Impressions Swing project.
In another expression of gratitude, West also presented members of Norfolk Police Division and Norfolk Fire & Rescue with tickets to the April 7 event that will feature Todd Burpo, author of the book “Heaven Is For Real.”
West said the Briggs & Barrett Project is starting to get national recognition; she often thinks of herself as “Briggs’ secretary,” carrying out a mission for him here on Earth.
“I miss (Briggs) so deeply, but I have found peace in knowing that God needed me to feel his love for those short months he was here before going on a mission in heaven where he was needed,” West said.