CLOSTER, N.J. — Lisa Oliveri Vreeland of Closter will never forget the office visit with her doctor.
It was 2009 and her 4-day-old son, Robby, had died unexpectedly.
“[The doctor] put his forehead to my forehead,” the then-new mom recalled. “He looked me right in the eyes. He said, ‘You cannot let this define you.’”
Then, he told her to do something to turn the tragedy into a positive.
Two years later, on Robby’s second birthday, Oliveri Vreeland, a language arts and science teacher in Paramus, found the key to her late son's legacy.
“The night Robby was born, a friend of ours gave us a blue teddy bear, which was his first teddy bear,” Oliveri Vreeland recalled. “Through the funeral, I clung to that teddy bear."
Another friend created web and Facebook pages for “Robby’s Rabbits.” Soon after, the first request for a stuffed rabbit arrived from a bereaved family.
Quietly and locally, Robby’s Rabbits began. The nonprofit gifts all kinds of stuffed animals, including rabbits, to families who have lost a child.
Five years later, Robby’s Rabbits have touched 60,000 lives throughout the U.S. and in 10 other countries.
“When they were putting him in the ground, the funeral director reached for the teddy bear, thinking I had brought it to bury with him,” she added. “I screamed.”
The idea behind Robby’s Rabbits is simple and yet emotionally perfect: to give family members who leave the hospital empty-handed, without the baby they expected, something to hold.
At Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, a stillbirth mother received a stuffed rabbit. A nurse had wrapped it in a blanket with the baby.
The baby’s body was taken away. The mother kept the rabbit, held it to her face, stroked it, embraced it.
Instinctively, Oliveri Vreeland understood the reaction of the Good Sam mother.
She said she learned to live again at support groups at “Good Sam.” So she was happy to donate more stuffed animals there.
Once the effort grew beyond the point of Oliveri Vreeland handwriting notes and personally mailing animals to people, her friends — all volunteers — took over the creation of mail list databases, packaging, website maintenance and publicity.
Nowadays, Oliveri Vreeland is looking for financial donations that cover shipping and handling.
She insists that the stuffed animals be wholly free to their recipients.
“They’ve already paid too great a price,” she said.