As Suzy Luff hand-looms each Hat-4-Hope, she checks the fit by trying out the cap on her fist. Luff is a petite, 20-year-old college sophomore and has hands that form a fist roughly the size of the tiny heads the hats are meant to cover - premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospital Colorado at Memorial Hospital, born too early to fit clothes sized for newborns. Some are too small at birth for even store-bought preemie garb.
Such was the case for fraternal twins Micah and Gabriel Crouse, who were born in early November at 31 weeks. Gabriel weighed 3.8 pounds; Micah only 3 pounds. Soon after birth, as often happens with newborns, the twins began to drop weight.
"They were in the 2-pound range for a while," said mom Leslie Crouse, after husband Brian gentled one, then the other twin into her arms, careful not to strain the oxygen tubes. "Their heads were about 21 centimeters . about the size of a baseball. Now, they're packing on the pounds."
Because they were born before their lungs had fully formed, Micah and Gabriel were transferred immediately into closed incubators in the NICU, where they could receive oxygen and their vital statistics could be monitored closely and regulated. Maintaining body temperature was critical.
"Babies lose a lot of heat through their heads," said Leslie Crouse, who spends about three hours each day at the hospital. Though the boys aren't yet ready to go home, once they began to thrive on their own, they were moved to open cribs, which are "much colder, so here there's a huge need for them (the hats)."
Now 6 weeks old, and about 5 pounds each, the boys have gone through several hats as their heads have grown.
"These boys were between nothing and preemie. Now, they're starting to fit preemie clothes," Crouse said. "They're amazing hats. It's just been such a huge blessing because the others would fall off."
Luff was inspired to start Hats-4-Hope while flipping through a family memory album and finding relics from her younger brother's infancy.
"The little hat he'd worn, and he was full-grown (not premature), it was flimsy and insubstantial," said Luff, a recipient of the prestigious Boettcher Scholarship who's studying math, with minors in leadership and Spanish, at Denver University. She'd gotten a hat-knitting loom for Christmas and figured she could do better.
Luff's original goal to make and donate 1,000 Hats-4-Hope before high school graduation had seemed ambitious. Not so much, when she surpassed that number her sophomore year. Her mom, friends and classmates at Colorado Springs Christian School and her church joined the endeavor.
These days, about 50 steady volunteers contribute, said Luff, who can churn out a hat in an average of 45 minutes and spends several hours a day at the task. Yarn and supplies are donated. With each hat, Luff includes a tag with the Bible verse James 1:17: "Every good and perfect gift is from above."
"Most of the preemies who come through here have at least one of these hats," said nurse and NICU educator Sharon Enoch. "It's such an exceptional experience for the families and lets them know that there are community members who appreciate the challenges they're facing and want to support them."
When families leave the NICU, Enoch suggests they store their child's keepsake Hat-4-Hope in a special place.
"We recommend people keep them on Beanie Babies so they always remember how tiny their preemies were."
Home from college for winter break, Luff stopped by the NICU last Thursday to drop off a batch that included Hat-4-Hope No. 5,000.
The day marked another milestone. For the first time, Luff was able to meet the recipients - Gabriel, who can't sleep without being cuddled, and Micah, who already has two teeth.
"When we make the hats, we stick our fists in there and imagine a baby's head," Luff said, "but to see an actual preemie (wearing a hat) - it's so wonderful to see them."