By Anne Williams

It starts with something going wrong during what should be one of the happiest experiences of life. A child is born sick or far too early, or with serious complications. Parents spend weeks, if not months, at the bedsides of their fragile newborns. The hospital becomes home, and strong bonds take hold among caregivers and families.

Kirsten Tu of Springfield was just 25 weeks pregnant in March 2009 when she gave birth to her son, Aven, at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend. He weighed just over 2 lbs., 3 oz., and spent 84 days in the unit. Tu found solace in the outdoors, walking RiverBend’s winding, forested paths and taking in views of the McKenzie River and Coburg Hills. But she found little comfort in the NICU’s long, austere corridors.

“When families are in the NICU and they have a brand new baby, it’s unknown and it’s scary and it’s trying, and you really have no idea what’s going on, and you’re spending your entire days and nights in the hospital,” she says. “That hallway was so long, and very sterile, and you definitely knew you were going into a hospital every day.”

But those stark, institutional beige walls have undergone a transformation. Repainted in hues of green and lavender, the corridor nearest the NICU entrance is now a gallery hung with a series of breathtaking portraits of babies, children, and young adults—all of them NICU alumni, strong and smiling. An appliqué tree mural greets visitors, its branches stretching and winding to connect the images.

Called the Hallway of Hope, the project is the fruit of nearly six years of collective dreaming, planning, and executing—with some setbacks along the way.

“It’s a story that really embraces dedication, compassion, collaboration, and hope,” says Barb Kessler, director of RiverBend’s Women and Children’s Services, which cares for close to 500 infants from throughout the region each year in its 36-bed NICU.

The project, which is still underway, began with the NICU’s Family Advisory Council, a group that took hold soon after RiverBend opened in 2008.

“What we heard was, ‘I’d like it to feel like my grandmother’s house,’” recalls Dr. Rebecca Bent, a neonatologist who cares for many of Sacred Heart’s NICU babies and, along with several NICU nurses, was part of the planning group. “And they wanted other families to have a visual reminder that there’s hope on the other side of an experience like this.”

Families also made it clear they wanted beautiful, soothing images of nature to be a part of the project.

Tu served on the council and was an early leader in the effort. She and another parent, Jaime Olsen, sent a grant proposal to Children’s Miracle Network describing the project that would ultimately evolve into the Hallway of Hope. The grant was approved, but for a variety of reasons—the layers of required approval, building code issue, changes in leadership both in the unit and on the advisory council—the project stalled.

In the summer of 2014, Anne Gordon, program coordinator for Spirituality and Healing Arts in Mission Services, jumped in and kicked the effort into high gear.

Barry West, a desktop analyst at RiverBend and professional photographer on the side, volunteered his skills for the project. “This is all about building hope and building relationships,” he says.

So far he has photographed more than 40 NICU alums, including Aven Tu; photos of 18 are displayed, with more coming soon. He’s posed each of them outside RiverBend, in the Fir Grove near the Emergency Department.

Tu, 33, says she’s disappointed the project took so long to blossom. But the Hallway of Hope is nonetheless “extremely beautiful,” she adds, and offers a powerful message to families who are living her experience.

“I’ve stuck it out and wanted to see it through to the end,” she says. “It was born within my heart and is a part of me, just like my son.”