BILLINGS - Three Montana moms have teamed up to form a nonprofit called Montana Brave Hearts, which looks to provide financial and emotional support for families with children who have congenital heart defects.
All three women involved in the nonprofit — Kalee Plowman of Polson, Kayleen Shultz of Shepherd, and Ashleah Hall of Billings — have a child living with one of these defects.
For all three women, the conditions completely changed the immediate days following the birth of their children. One in 100 babies are born with a congenital heart defect and most require surgery in their first year of life.
That was the case for Hall, who gave birth to her daughter Banks in Denver. Banks underwent open-heart surgery at just six days old.
"It was the longest day of my entire life," Hall said. "The day of the surgery was probably the hardest day of my life because you definitely don't know if your child is going to return to you."
But Banks is a fighter. At 18 months old she's now had two successful open-heart surgeries and she'll have another once her body is ready. Her mom couldn't be more grateful that she is still here.
"She's strong and she has shown us that she's resilient," Hall said as tears welled in her eyes. "She has the attitude to make it through this and I'm just really thankful."
Hall said in the first few days after the diagnosis her family felt alone. But after connecting with others in her same situation on Facebook she quickly found out she wasn't.
"If you're not in this situation, you just really don't understand what it's like and what you're going through," Hall said. "Having them to just vent to or get advice from has been the best thing."
One of those connections was Plowman and Hall said she helped her realize everything was going to be okay.
"She was just so kind and so understanding of our situation," Hall said. "At that time, she explained her nonprofit and I just knew that was something I wanted to be a part of. We pretty much teamed up from there."
So Hall began working with Plowman on providing gift baskets to other Montana families who received similar diagnoses. One of those moms who received a basket was Shultz, who said she will never forget the first words she heard from her doctor the day she heard that her daughter Gabby was going to be born with a heart defect.
"We found out about Gabby's heart condition at our 20-week anatomy scan," Shultz said. "My doctor came in and touched my arm and he said, 'I think there's something wrong with your baby's heart.' My heart just started racing and you could feel the tears burning your cheeks."
Some of her fear quickly subsided when she got in contact with Hall and Plowman.
"Just knowing that other people had gone through the same thing, that was huge for me," Shultz said. "The heart community, especially in Montana, is so close-knit. You feel comfort knowing you're not alone."
As Shultz learned more about the Montana Brave Hearts, she knew she wanted to get involved.
"I just felt like helping other moms was part of my calling," Shultz said. "With everything we've gone through and Gabby's gone through, I've just been helped a ton and received a bunch of support. So if I can give back a little bit, it's the least I can do."
In an effort to raise awareness and funds, the nonprofit is organizing a Gala that will be held at the Billings Depot on Feb. 3. There will be live music and silent auction items. They said there are still about 15 tables available for reservation and that they are looking for silent auction items. More information can be found at their website.