The night before newborn Jaxon Russell had his first heart surgery, his mother and father, Miranda and Shannon Russell, put their son's tiny handprint on a baseball and put the ball in a glass case.
That had been the plan all along — the baseball and ink were in the diaper bag the Russells took to the hospital — but the project was forgotten in the hazy days after Jaxon's birth. The boy had a previously undetected heart defect and would need surgery immediately. The parents' anticipated joy became a rush of fear and chaos.
Making the handprint was a much-needed moment of calm.
"For us it was the first normal baby thing we got to do," Miranda Russell said. "It took the stress off us for a little while.
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"Instantly, that baseball become one of our prized possessions."
Jaxon survived that first operation at University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center and a second surgery at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. Today he is almost 2 years old, and the Russells are on a mission to help other families who have children with heart defects.
They've created a nonprofit, Lil' Heart Sluggers.
Shannon Russell said that even before Jaxon came home from UK, Shannon knew he would do something to help others.
"God just laid it on my heart," he said.
Lil' Heart Sluggers, based out of their Winchester home, is an ambitious undertaking operated on a shoestring.
The tangible center of what they do is distributing Lil' Heart Slugger Packs, which include a baseball, an ink pad, a case and a miniature bat.
But the intangible is done on Lilheartsluggers.org, where at least five days a week a picture is posted of the Lil' Heart Slugger of the Day. It also honors Angels Above the Out Field, children who did not survive. The nonprofit's Facebook page serves as another place to share information and prayers about children who are undergoing or recovering from surgery.
The Russells also put together an annual Lil' Heart Sluggers day with the Lexington Legends at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Shannon said it is a chance for families to see how the children are growing and includes special activities for siblings such as running the bases. Jaxon has two sisters, Lacie, 5, and Abby, 4.
Miranda hand-decorated each of the 30 T-shirts that were given to children at the last event. She laid the shirts, embellished with a name and number in puffy paint, on her living room furniture to dry.
The couple, who met at church, said God was the center of their relationship. The stay-at-home mom, 26, and warehouse manager, 31, see the Lord working in the lives of the families coping, as they are, with a child with heart disease.
Running the website and updating the Facebook page are time consuming, and distributing the Lil' Heart Slugger packs can get expensive.
The packs cost about $10 each to make, plus postage. They've distributed 250, which have been sent all over the world.
Angi Lampe of Panama City, Fla., whose son Brody was born with a heart defect, said she appreciated all the work the Russells put into their charity.
She also is grateful for the community they've created online.
"We are blessed that our son is still here, and very much fighting, but so many are fighting even harder then our little kiddo, and I really appreciate that they highlight a little slugger" each day, said Lampe, who met the Russells this summer while they were vacationing in Panama City.
She's also glad to be able to "share prayers and well wishes where I can" for a community that stretches around the world.
The Russells said parents make requests for support while their children are in the hospital or in recovery, and sometimes the requests come after a child dies.
Shannon said they try to respond to each request immediately, but putting the packs together requires buying in bulk, so they occasionally have to wait to save enough money to create and send more packs. Right now they are surviving on donations from family and friends and contributions that have come in through the website.
Shannon is in the midst of a one-man fundraising campaign. He has emailed local college coaches and baseball players to raise a couple thousand dollars to support the Russells' efforts.
They also have been donating Lil Heart Sluggers packs to UK hospital and next year hope to expand to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville.
Shannon said he has seen how the seemingly small gesture can make a big difference. One family from Illinois requested a pack for their little girl. It was sent overnight, but the baby died before the pack arrived. The parents were able to use it to make a handprint after their daughter's death, and they told Russell that her handprint looked like the image of Wilson, the volleyball in the movie Cast Away. The image made the parents laugh, he said.
"We were a part of something that brought laughter and a sense of joy on what was by far the worst day of their life," he said.
"It definitely lets us know we are doing what God wants us to be doing," he said.
Meanwhile, there are 46 packs waiting to be sent out.