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Cupcakes and Huskers and Super Hero costumes, (and love) for preemies and their parents

Lincoln Journal Star - 

The Halloween costumes for the tiniest of trick-or-treaters arrived at St. Elizabeth’s NICU Friday afternoon.

Shannon Ruzicka and Tracy Pella delivered the plastic tub filled with lady bugs and football jerseys and superhero capes made of felt and love. Two moms who know what it is like to have a baby come too soon and be so small.

In the soft light of the NICU, 2-day old Sean Homolka was transformed into a Husker — his red pants and jersey spread across his 4-pound body like paper doll cutouts — as he slept in his warm incubator on the fourth floor.

Down the hall, Amelia Louise Huenink became a cupcake, complete with sprinkles and a pom-pom cherry on top.

A 4-pound, 13-ounce bundle of sweetness, arms flung overhead, eyes peeking open to study the fuss: the squeals and squeaks and oh-how-adorables. Cellphone cameras clicking at Hollywood red carpet speed.

Amelia’s parents, Jessi and Seth, were expecting this costume delivery from Connected Forever, a Nebraska nonprofit that supports parents who experience premature birth or infant loss.

Jessi had met Tracy, the group’s co-founder, in early September after a nurse practitioner suggested the match.

“Support might be the best word for it, but it doesn’t even come close,” Jessi said. “She knows exactly what we’re going through.”

Amelia was delivered by C-section on Aug.3, when Jessi developed a rare and deadly syndrome related to pre-eclampsia.

The Lincoln couple’s firstborn weighed 1-pound, 1-ounce and has spent 12 weeks in the NICU; her due date was Nov. 9.

“I was planning on being pregnant on Halloween,” the Lincoln mom said.

Instead, she’s taken six months off from work to be with her baby, who, by Monday morning, had eclipsed the 5-pound mark.

Good news she shared with her family — and (of course) with Tracy. “We talk all the time.”

Connected Forever began in 2014, three years after the premature birth of Tracy and Jesse Pella’s twin sons. Cohen died the day he was born, June 1, 2011, and Cooper is now 6.

“I think the biggest thing for us is for people to know our resources are available,” Tracy said. “There’s a need out there and we want to fill it.”

The group provides support and resources to parents grieving infant loss and to those whose babies were born early — help with funeral expenses, financial assistance to NICU families, an online support group and community outreach and education.

They host Miracle Mom Meetups and have a peer support program, led by Shannon, that they hope to expand across the state.

“To have someone who has walked this journey, there’s just a different level of understanding and connectedness,” Tracy said.

Both of Shannon and Brad’s babies were born early, Burke at 34 weeks and Paige at 28 weeks.

“When I was in the NICU, I had a hard time even talking to friends and my family,” Shannon said. “To be able to talk to a parent who's been in that situation, instead of sympathy you can have empathy and there’s a huge difference.”

Which is how it came to be that 14 moms who understood each other perfectly gathered to cut felt for tiny babies to wear on Oct. 31 — turtles and pigs and cows, Elmos and Cookie Monsters and Minions, gumball machines and doughnuts and red strawberries with green stems.

They created costumes for preemie twins: a pair of M&Ms, a carton of milk and a cookie.

They gave their project a name: Costumes for the NICuties.

“We were going to start with St. Elizabeth and Bryan and then we thought, why can’t we do it for all the hospitals?” Shannon said.

In all, the moms created more than 200 Halloween classics, which have now been delivered to NICUs across the state. In Omaha and North Platte, Kearney and Scottsbluff, Grand Island and Hastings and Lincoln.

Last weekend, Connected Forever posted photos of Amelia the cupcake and Sean the football star on its Facebook page, much to the delight of its 2,044 members.

When I talked to Shannon on Monday, she was celebrating her son’s Oct. 30 birthday. Burke, the preemie, now 4.

On his first Halloween, Burke was on a ventilator in the St. Elizabeth NICU. A hospital volunteer brought Shannon his first Halloween costume, a small felt football.

The frightened mom placed it on top of her fragile new baby.

“It had been a really hard day,” she said. “It just made me feel normal for a minute.”

The Ruzicka Family

You never anticipate the unexpected and in pregnancy, the unexpected is scary territory.  Our unexpected’s are 34 week and 28 week preemies.  Our unexpected’s are our miracles.  Our son, Burke, entered this world at 34 weeks after a 3 week hospital bed rest resulting from my waters prematurely rupturing.  He was born at 4lbs 6 oz and we spent 19 days in the NICU watching Burke learn to breathe, eat, and grow.  19 days that felt like an eternity and 19 of the hardest days of our life.  Little did we know, we would find ourselves calling the NICU home again 2 years later.  Our daughter, Paige, was born at 28 weeks gestation after an emergency c-section weighing 2lbs 7oz.  Paige spent 57 days in the NICU before coming home and she spent those days competing with her brother for the winner of the contest for ‘worries parents most’. 

Both our pregnancies quickly shifted from emotions of anticipation and excitement to worry and fear.  The NICU was where we watched our babies behind a plastic box as they clinged to life while fighting to thrive.  The NICU was where we juggled how to parent our tiny fragile babies in the midst of medical equipment and staff.  The NICU was where we were isolated from the outside world while we held our babies skin to skin in silence.  The NICU was where we watched our children endure more in their first months of life then either of us have in our 30 plus years of life.  The NICU will forever be our darkest, hardest and most stressful times of our life.  But, the NICU was also where we celebrated each first breath our child took on their own.  It was where we held our children for the first times.  It was where we witnessed them learn to coordinate their breathing with eating.  It was where celebrated each gram gained and alarm free days!   It was where we were witness to what many people experience in the womb right in front of our eyes.  In the midst of the darkness, there was light.  The NICU is where we found hope.  We found healing.  We learned to see the beauty in the most trying moments to stay encouraged.  We are blessed beyond measure and both of our children are doing well despite their grand entrances too early into this world.  When we look back, it always stirs up raw emotions and brings a tear to our eyes.  But, the experiences we endured made us stronger.  It made us better parents.  It made us appreciate life more than some know possible.  Premature babies are the most resilient, fearless, determined and confident humans you will ever meet.  We are just fortunate enough to call two of them our own.  


Here's Avery

Finding out we were expecting our second baby was one of the greatest things we could ever imagine. I had a few complications with our son Landon but nothing extreme and he was born only 9 days early.  I never expected to have a preemie. When I was 12 weeks pregnant everything changed. I started spotting for the first time and had to go on bed rest and reduce activity. When I was 22 weeks pregnant we thought all of that was behind us and we were excited to find out we were adding a girl to our family. Days later everything changed.  Due to an infection I started to have contractions and was on bed rest and in and out of the Doctor's office. It was decided at 24 weeks we were going to try a cerclage. Unfortunately 24 hours after the cerclage my water broke. I was on hospital bed rest for 12 days until Avery decided it was time to make an appearance, I was only 25 weeks and 6 days. To say we were terrified is putting it mildly. She was born on August 16, 2013 at 1 pound 12 ounces. Avery had her ups and downs during her 74 days in the NICU but always continued to beat the odds especially when she came home 4 weeks before her due date. Life after the NICU still wasn't easy.  Avery had 2 more hospital trips with stays in pediatrics due to bronchiolitis, she was on oxygen for 10 months, worked with PT, OT and still goes to speech therapy. At 3 years old she wears glasses and just had corrective eye surgery Through out all of this she has been our rock star!  She has taught patience, strength and how to accept the unknown.  

Here’s Cooper

Connected Forever is excited to announce details for our 2nd Annual Fundraiser & Celebration event. For details and registration, please visit our fundraising page under What We Do For any questions, please contact us via email

Tracy said, "My son Cohen passed away. Our son Cooper, who weighed 14.8 ounces survived and spent 134 days in the CHI Health St. Elizabeth NICU."