Spotlight Iowa City: A stitch in time aids thousands

COURTNEY SPEARS

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Laura Aker never expected to help thousands of people with a pair of knitting needles.

But then again, as her mother will say, the 27-year-old has never done anything like a normal person.

Four knee surgeries between 2001 and 2004, coupled with chronic pain, kept her off her feet and looking for something worthwhile to do. Now, with the pain well behind her, she prefers not to talk about it, except to say she’s thankful.

“My life is completely different,” she said with a big smile. “It’s wonderful how something so terrible can be such a blessing.”

Knitting back then was a pain-control activity. Her mother, Linda Aker, a medical technologist at Iowa City’s Mercy Hospital, suggested she use her time making hats and booties for infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

It didn’t take much persuading. Laura Aker immediately jumped at the opportunity to help the families of 900 premature infants that come through the UIHospitals and Clinics care unit each year.

In August 2005, Laura and a few volunteers she summoned through online message boards and newsletters made a donation to the unit. From that first donation emerged the Preemie Project, which provides hand-crafted hats, booties, blankets, and bereavement items for families of every premature infant that comes through the unit.

Nationally, more than 12 percent of infants are born pre-term each year, according to the March of Dimes, meaning more than 500,000 families are looking for support from people similar to Aker with a passion for serving.

“When I get excited about something, I get really excited,” she said. “[But] I don’t think I thought it would ever be this big.”

Her zeal is noticeable. To date, more than 250 people from across the globe who consistently donate to the project. In 2008, the effort expanded to include a Michigan chapter, and Iowa volunteers donated more than 3,500 items this year, a number large enough to expand its reaches to Mercy Hospital.

“She sees a need, and she wants to meet that need,” said Preemie Project Vice President Andrea Knepper. “If the [care unit] ever comes up with something it doesn’t have, Laura is always trying to find a way that we can help it with that.”

Laura Aker’s leadership has not stopped. A full-time nursing student who will graduate in December 2010, the project founder also serves as the student intern for the Gamma chapter of Sigma Theta Tau and is planning a June wedding to fiancé Brian Pabich.

“I have learned a lot about her abilities through this,” said Linda Aker, who refers to her daughter as her “little CEO.” “It’s fun watching what your kids are made of.”

The motivated woman said she can’t see herself ever letting go of her role.

“I couldn’t ever walk away 100 percent,” Laura Aker said. “[But] I can’t wait to be a nurse and get in there with the babies and their families.”