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They lost a daughter, so they made sure each child's grave had an angel on it for Christmas

'A simple act of kindness can go a long way'
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-14 13:03:58-05

MONTGOMERY, Ohio -- As a new year rolls around, it's common to look to the future and celebrate things to come.

But Julie DiBlasi and others are doing all they can to make sure we also remember the past.

"We have become so much more aware of what life is truly all about and the depth of grief that families experience when they lose a child," said the 37-year-old Montgomery resident. "While every experience and everyone’s grief is different, we have found that there is one truth within it all: A child is never forgotten in the hearts of those who have experienced this loss."

It was 2015 when DiBlasi and her husband, Nick, endured that hardship. Their fourth daughter, Clare, was stillborn. In February 2016, they created a billboard to celebrate Clare's life and give peace to those struggling through hard times.

"Be Here Now," it read. "Do Things That Matter To Your Heart. You're OK. Make The World A Better Place. It Is Possible."

It became known as The Clarecode -- a simple reminder to do good deeds for others.

The DiBlasi family. (Photo provided by Julie DiBlasi)

In December, they continued the mission with other families in the area. They gathered at All Saints School to make 1,300 ornaments, which were then hung on all the gravestones of the children at Gate of Heaven cemetery in Montgomery, where Clare and other infants and children have been laid to rest.

They called it Operation Angel.

"It was a pretty heartwarming experience," Julie said. "Before we put the angel ornaments out, we stood in a big circle and prayed for all the children. It made such a warm impact on our hearts and we heard from so many families there that it did for them as well."

This wasn't the first time the families had gotten together for this purpose.

It began during Christmas 2015, the first holiday the DiBlasi family spent without Clare, when Julie looked at her husband.

"I said, 'Let's do something this Christmas for the families who are also a part of this club that no parent wishes to be a part of in life,'" she said. "We talked about what made a difference in the months since we lost Clare."

One thing was showing up to what they called "Clare's Park" -- the Gate of Heaven cemetery -- and finding that someone left something at her grave.

"Knowing someone thought of her and was there to visit her was amazing," she said.

So they decided to buy angel ornaments for all the children in her section.

"This meant 300 ornaments," she said. "Then another family we know said they were making angel ornaments in honor of Clare. That's when we decided to get our friends and families together to make ornaments."

When 2016 arrived, people asked if they were going to do it again. They decided they would create ornaments for all of the families with little angels in both children's sections of the cemetery.

That meant 1,300 ornaments.

Families who have lost infants gathered a group at All Saints School in December to make 1,300 angel ornaments that they then laid out at the children/infant section of graves at Gate of Heaven cemetery in Montgomery. (Photo provided by Julie DiBlasi and Anissa Cundall)

"We got even more families and friends together and in one morning, made all the ornaments," DiBlasi said. "The best part of this is feeling the love and care that everyone shows when they hang the ornaments and say a little prayer for the little one."

As they left that day, many families were stopping by to visit the graves.

"(They had) tears in their eyes, in awe that people cared enough to think of their children," she said. "A simple act of kindness can go a long way, especially during the holidays."

It certainly made a difference for those who participated.

A child places an angel ornament on a child's grave at Gate of Heaven cemetery. (Photo provided by Julie DiBlasi and Anissa Cundall)

"Operation Angel was a very special event," said resident Maura O'Keefe. "My entire family participated -- my husband, my two daughters, and my 4-year-old son. It was a heartwarming and humbling experience that truly portrayed the Christmas spirit of loving, remembering, and cherishing human life."

Anissa Cundall and her husband, Richard, helped organize the most recent event. Their son, James, was laid to rest at Gate of Heaven as well.

"There are just no words to explain how much our hearts were filled to be a part of Operation Angel," Anissa said. "We did not choose to live without our son, but we do choose to live in honor of him. This was such a great way for our family to honor both James and all of the other angels at Gate of Heaven.

"It was amazing to see so many helping hands come together to make it so successful."

Anissa's 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth agreed.

"It was so sad to make so many angels, but I was so happy to help make them to remember my brother," she said.

Families who have lost infants gathered a group at All Saints School in December to make 1,300 angel ornaments that they then laid out at the children/infant section of graves at Gate of Heaven cemetery in Montgomery. (Photo provided by Julie DiBlasi and Anissa Cundall)

Wendy Tepe, a mother of five children, helped start the annual project with the DiBlasis last year.

"They decided to focus on living the best life they could by helping others in simple ways," Tepe said of the DiBlasis. "The Clarecode was started to remind others to simply be kind and honor sweet Clare in everyday life. Operation Angel has really opened up a healthy positive discussion about the loss so many families have been through who have lost a baby either in utero or very early in life."

At All Saints School, the crowd featured adults, but also children, gathering to build the ornaments. And when each was finished, they rang a bell to signify the completion of another angel.

Children volunteer to make angel ornaments for Operation Angel. (Photo provided by Julie DiBlasi and Anissa Cundall)

"Many of the children participating were in kindergarten to third grade, and they took their jobs very seriously," Tepe said. "It was a wonderful way to spread Christmas cheer and respectfully honor the babies. Hopefully this will be a tradition that we continue to do every year."

Julie DiBlasi says there are plenty of future Clarecode projects.

"Ever since we lost Clare, there have been many Clarecode projects going on with our friends and family," she said. "It's kind of amazing how truly the smallest person can make the biggest difference in so many lives. February is the anniversary of her passing, so I am hoping to get the billboard up once again. Of course we hope to do Operation Angel each year during the holidays because it's so close to our hearts.

A poem written for Operation Angel with an ornament. (Photo provided by Julie DiBlasi and Anissa Cundall)

"I was asked by a reporter once if I truly thought this could change society," she continued. "My response was, 'I think one act of kindness can have a ripple effect that could change anything.' Every single day we can choose to be kind to one another, we can choose to do one simple thing to help one another out in some way, and yes we can change the world, or at least our world.

"So every day is a Clare project in our eyes."