MANATEE — The small, glass plaque Sherkendra Burch keeps for her late daughter describes the peace she has found more than two years after losing her baby.
“A mother holds her child’s hand for a short time but their heart forever,” it reads.
It has been a long journey to that hard-won peace for Burch, a 22-year-old Bradenton woman who is vowing to help other mothers avoid a similar pain.
S’Marri Yalani Burch died at the age of six weeks on Nov. 28, 2007. She suffocated during the night while sleeping in the same bed as her mother.
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Sherkendra Burch was devastated, so distraught upon the discovery of her daughter not breathing that she says she couldn’t dial the numbers 9-1-1. One of her siblings called the number for her, but it was too late.
Burch couldn’t believe the happy, jabbering baby who loved to bathe and looked up at her with those adoring eyes when she was nursing could be gone in an instant.
“I would say it took me a good four or five months to talk about it without crying,” Burch said. “I think about her every day. If I’m not at work or busy, I can sit at home and for two hours sit around and think about her.”
But finally Burch thinks she is ready to talk about what happened to S’Marri. And she has found a determination to help other mothers by volunteering to become a spokeswoman for Healthy Start Manatee and its Project Moses and Safe Sleeping campaigns.
“It can happen in five minutes,” said Burch, a 2006 Southeast graduate who works as a cashier at Walmart in Palmetto. “You can’t say, ‘I’ll let them sleep with me for one hour, and I’ll put them in the crib.’ It’s not worth it. An hour can turn into two hours. Put them in the crib.”
Healthy Start Manatee is an 18-year-old organization that links expectant and new mothers with services and education to help them provide a healthy environment for their babies. It is funded by a statewide initiative championed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Program manager Luz Corcuera said Burch’s story will resonate with her clients better than pamphlets and seminars.
“I think it makes a huge difference when you talk to a parent who has lost a baby,” Corcuera said. “She is so motivated to tell others, ‘Please do not sleep with your baby. You need to have a safe place for your baby.’”
Project Moses began in 2005 after Corcuera and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Major Connie Shingledecker discussed ways to react to the deaths of 19 Manatee babies who were sleeping with their mothers from 2000 to 2004.
“It dawned on me when we were talking. ‘I said, Are you saying that if there was someone who had talked to these parents about accidental infant death, we may have prevented these cases?’ She said yes,” Corcuera said. “So I thought about a way for us to tell everyone it takes a second for you to lose your baby. That actually parents, especially moms, are very tired when they have babies.”
There was one confirmed case of a co-sleeping infant death in 2009 and two other cases under investigation, she said.
The main component of the Project Moses effort is a bassinet packet available to all new Manatee mothers. The bassinets are made from laundry baskets and feature a firm mattress made by female Manatee County jail inmates and a liner fashioned by local volunteers.
Volunteers instruct mothers who don’t have cribs to put their bassinet on the floor or on the bed against a wall. That prevents parents from rolling over onto their babies during the night.
The packet also includes sleepers emblazoned with the safe sleeping ABCs — “I sleep safest Alone, on my Back, in my Crib” — a receiving blanket, a knitted baby hat and booties, a shawl for the mother and a quilt for playtime when the baby is awake.
Rosa Medina, Bradenton resident and mother of three, said Healthy Start and Project Moses have helped her with 15-month-old daughter Lorena. Medina’s older daughters, 9-year-old Jaqueline and 7-year-old Sarah, are learning, too. Jaqueline insisted upon the removal of all teddy bears from Lorena’s crib.
“I’m really thankful,” Medina, 28, said. “I know I did many things wrong with the older girls. I really want my baby to be healthy and safe in the home. I didn’t know a teddy bear could be a danger in the crib. And they taught me to put sheets on the crib.”
Surprisingly, Burch knew the Safe Sleeping tenets because she was a Healthy Start Manatee client when S’Marri was born.
She was in the process of moving out of her mother’s house and into the Pine Village apartment where she now lives. With all the upheaval, Burch didn’t take the time to assemble S’Marri’s crib and instead put the child down next to her in bed. When Burch awoke at 5:45 a.m., S’Marri had suffocated during the night.
“I thought she passed out.” Burch said. “I didn’t want to think she was gone. When I pulled up her shirt and saw how pale her stomach was, I said, ‘OK, she’s not breathing.’ My thoughts ... I can’t put into words.”
Burch hopes she can find the words to describe how much she would give for the chance to go back to that night and keep her baby safe.
“They’re the mother, so they’re going to make the final decision no matter what. I don’t force what I’ve been through on them, but I tell them what I have been through,” Burch said.
Burch, who said she hopes to have another child again “someday,” still visits S’Marri’s grave at least once a week. She maintains a tribute table with the plaque in a prominent corner of her living room. It includes the few pictures she has of S’Marri, a birth certificate, the funeral program and an obituary from the Bradenton Herald.
The table also features a laminated copy of a poem Burch wrote to S’Marri.
“I loved you since before you were born,” it reads. “By the look in your eyes and the sincerity of your smile, I know you felt the same about me.