At the end of June 2011, things were hectic for Stephen and Tiffany Bowen. The New York natives, who met while attending Hofstra University, were living in Dallas, where Bowen had played defensive end for the Cowboys since 2006. They were also raising their 18-month old daughter, Trinity and excitedly awaiting the birth of twin boys.
With Tiffany 24-weeks pregnant, and things seemingly going well, Bowen, who hadn’t yet signed a contract for the 2011 season, took a quick trip back to New York to take care of some business. And then everything took a turn. Tiffany suddenly went into labor. The next few hours were a blur. Tiffany called 911 and within 30 minutes of arriving at the hospital, had a cesarean section.
Bowen rushed back to Texas where his newborn sons, Stephen and Skyler, were struggling. Stephen had heart surgery, which was successful. But, days later, Skyler succumbed to an infection.
As they grieved Skyler’s death, Bowen signed with the Washington Redskins and the family relocated to Washington D.C. But, the tragedy had opened their eyes. While the Bowens had the means for an appropriate burial for Skyler, they discovered that many families who had lost premature babies did not.
“Being in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) area and seeing people who couldn’t afford to put their child to rest, I thought was horrific,” Bowen said.
What horrified the Bowens even more was when they discovered that when families can’t afford funerals for their premature babies, the remains are often discarded by hospitals as medical waste.
Skyler immediately became their inspiration for a foundation that they named in his memory, Skyler’s Gift, which provides funds to families who have lost a premature child and can’t afford to pay for the funeral and mortuary costs.
“The one thing I said (to Skyler) was ‘I wasn’t going to let you die in vain,’” Tiffany said. “This makes me feel like I’m keeping that promise to him. I didn’t want anybody to forget him.”
In addition to raising money to help families with their funeral arrangements, Skyler’s Gift Foundation also provides direction and financial support for families in need of counseling programs after dealing with this sudden and unexpected loss.
The Bowens have been struck by the generosity that they have seen from others throughout their journey. Skyler’s Gift Foundation provides up to $1,500 for each funeral, but in some cases the cost exceeds that amount. However, many funeral homes that the foundation has interacted with have shown their own compassion; upon learning the specifics of the situation, they often waive any additional fees above and beyond the $1,500.
The reason behind premature births remains a mystery and the Bowens also want to contribute in the quest to help solve it. They work with the March of Dimes and in 2012-2013 were the ambassador family for the Washington, D.C. area. Skyler’s Gift makes an annual donation to the March of Dimes, whose mission includes funding research to end premature births.
“Prematurity is common,” Bowen said. “But, they have no science to predict or prevent prematurity.”
Word of the foundation has spread quickly, through word of mouth, the medical community and other organizations who have heard about their work, especially as the number of people who receive assistance from Skyler’s Gift Foundation steadily increases. Social workers especially have become a conduit. “We get applications from all over the country and a majority of those referrals come from social workers,” Tiffany said.
Their current efforts with the foundation have been so successful it has encouraged them in other ways. Tiffany, who already had a Masters degree in education, joined her husband in the MBA program at George Washington University. They both expect to earn their degrees this month and plan to use what they’ve learned not only to continue to build the foundation, but to expand its reach and impact in different arenas.
“Eventually I would like to hire lobbyists to try to change the laws about what is considered medical waste,” Tiffany said. “Our primary objective is to help as many families as we can.”
The Bowens are grateful that their other two children are healthy and thriving and they take heart that although Skyler is no longer physically with them, he remains an ever-present part of their family and continues to motivate them as they move forward helping others.
For more information on Skyler’s Gift Foundation, visit www.skylersgift.org.