CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) — Melissa and Kevin Knouse should have been celebrating their triplets' first birthday. The couple should have been running around their farm house in Dickinson Township happily exhausted, tripping over toys and running after three baby boys.
Instead, they spent the first weekend in July mourning the deaths of John, Arthur and David who were born at 18 weeks, too small and weak to survive.
"We had just finished our registry online and were looking at big huge vehicles and wondering how we were going to fit three cribs in one bedroom," Melissa said. "Where were we going to put all those swings and things babies need? But it turned out they didn't need any of that."
Some days are easier, Melissa said, and some days, it's exhausting just getting out of bed. But before going downstairs, no matter how the day might turn out, she puts on three special bracelets to remind her of "her boys."
Melissa made the bracelets herself, modeled after the jewelry she received from York Hospital after her heartbreaking delivery. Each of the Knouse babies were given a little bracelet to be buried with and Melissa received a matching one.
"If you gave me a paper clip I would have cherished it," she said. "I was supposed to go home with three babies and I came home empty handed. The bracelet was something to hold on to."
Inspired by the comfort such a simple gift provided, Melissa began making bracelets last October for York Hospital to distribute to other mothers who experienced neonatal or stillborn loss. It was with those first bracelets that Jewelry Designs by Angels was born.
Around that time, Kevin and Melissa joined the Sweet Grace Ministries support group in Chambersburg, and it was clear they were going to play a huge part in supporting other families experiencing infant loss, said the nonprofit president Katy Dortenzo.
When Melissa started making bracelets, it was natural for the organization to start working with Jewelry Designs by Angels, Dortenzo added.
"The bracelets are a beautiful, peaceful reminder of the parents' sweet babe," she said. "It helps all moms of loss to feel connected when they have something made specifically in memory of their child."
Less than a year later, in partnership with Sweet Grace Ministries, Melissa's bracelets are being delivered every month to Chambersburg, Gettysburg, York and Waynesboro hospitals. Hershey and Harrisburg hospitals have also contacted Melissa for jewelry donations.
"I think about my boys a hundred million times a day, but every time I make these bracelets I know that I'm helping," Melissa said. "I want grieving mothers and families to know they are not alone."
Each bracelet that goes out includes a handwritten note from Melissa as well as a card about Arthur, David and John. It's a personal way to let the world know, even though the triplets are not here today, they are still important, she said.
"I want the world to know they were here and they lived inside of me and not to just forget them," Melissa said. "It's just my way to connect with my boys."
Jewelry Designs by Angels is funded through the sales of what Melissa calls her "fun jewelry," which includes earrings, bracelets, watches and wraps. She also offers bead parties that people can host for groups, families and friends to make their own jewelry.
All of the proceeds go toward the making of bracelets for area hospitals or to Sweet Grace Ministries.
"My aunt hosted a bead party last weekend, and one of her friends said every time she wears the bracelet, she'll think about me and my boys," Melissa said. "That's all I want. They shouldn't be forgotten."
The legacy of the Knouse babies is greater than Melissa and Kevin will ever know thanks to Jewelry Designs by Angels, Dortenzo said. The love they have for their boys travels to families all over the nation, healing and bringing words of comfort, she said.
"I am proud to call Melissa my friend and dear sister in this lifelong dance of grief and joy," Dortenzo said. "She dances it with strength and beauty that pours out from her love for her sweet boys."