The Sweet Pea Foundation was established in 2003 by Pete and Suzanne Letherman in memory of their daughter Grace. The focus of the organization is to help sick children who are receiving medical care with an emphasis on “non-medical healing” to both the child and the family.
When Grace Letherman was born in South Bend, Indiana in November 1 of 2002, Pete and Suzanne did not expect the incredible challenges they were to face. What was supposed to be the routine delivery of their first child, turned into an unexpected journey.
Shortly after her birth, Grace was transferred to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. After six weeks and a multitude of tests, doctors were unable to determine what was causing her low muscle tone. While still waiting for answers, Grace had gained enough strength to come home for a short time over Christmas, but was readmitted a few weeks later due to pulmonary concerns. The family spent several more weeks at Riley and did not receive any clear answers. They decided a second opinion and some new direction was in Grace’s best interest. She was transferred to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
With a new team of doctors caring for Grace, Pete and Suzanne were optimistic that things were going to get better. Although caring for a child with special needs was not what they had anticipated, several months in and out of hospitals opened their eyes and provided them with a new perspective. It was during their stay at Children’s Hospital that the idea for the Sweet Pea Foundation was created.
While sitting at Grace’s bedside, Pete and Suzanne looked around the intensive care unit and made a pact with their daughter― “when we are released from the hospital, we are going to find some small way to help these children.” When the Letherman family was finally cleared to return to South Bend, it was with the news that Grace had a rare form of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Although she had tested negative for the disease on two separate occasions, a muscle biopsy determined that she did have SMA and that it was a terminal form of the disease.
After another short stay in a South Bend hospital, Grace was placed in hospice care and sent home to spend time with her mom and dad. She spent six wonderful weeks at home away from the hectic pace of hospital life. Although caring for Grace was a twenty-four hour per day job, Pete and Suzanne relished the opportunity to spend some “normal” family time with their daughter. In May of 2003, on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, God called his daughter Grace to Him while she was resting peacefully in her mother’s arms.
With heavy hearts, Pete and Suzanne laid Grace to rest in Cedar Grove Cemetery on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. After all the funeral arrangements and some time alone, the Letherman family turned their attention to a promise they made with Grace. The groundwork for the Foundation had begun prior to Grace’s passing, but getting the organization off the ground was the new focus for Pete and Suzanne.
The Sweet Pea Foundation was established with the mission of helping sick children and their families with non-medical assistance. The goals of the Foundation were established in sequence with Letherman’s journey with Grace. The first goal was to establish an endowment that would perpetually support a room at the Ronald McDonald House of Indiana where Pete and Suzanne had lived for several months. Secondly, the organization set out to provide toys and activities for children while they are receiving care in a hospital. There is a significant amount of waiting when caring for a child in the hospital. Pete and Suzanne found that a new toy or book was a great distraction while waiting for test results or the doctors to make rounds. In addition it has been said that “play is the work of children” and activities that allow a child to play helps the healing process.
It has been several years since Grace passed away, but her memory is thriving through the work of the Sweet Pea Foundation. Supporters of the organization remain committed to the promise made by Grace’s parents. Pete and Suzanne Letherman continue to be humbled by the generosity and support of those who share a vision to help sick children at a time when extra compassion is a blessing.
The Foundation’s logo contains the tagline: “From a little Grace, grows a world of love.” Pete and Suzanne hope Grace’s name and her memory live on and continue to touch the lives of children who need it most.
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