FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Fort Wayne’s NBC) – For the Sipe Family, life can move pretty fast.
There’s two year-old Lincoln, who’s getting his toddler stride on. And younger brother A.J.? He may not be at a full run just yet, but his parents know, he’ll get there.
“He keeps me going every day,” Sandra Sipe says with a smile.
Proud papa Jared calls him “an absolute blessing.”
But A.J.’s arrival on Feb. 20, 2018, brought unanticipated challenges… along with that blessed gift.
At the hospital, “there’s, like, nurses and doctors running around,” Jared explained. “Which is fine. They’ve got to help him, help her.
“I’m just, like… I don’t know what to think. She doesn’t know yet.”
“God has a plan for him”
What Sandra didn’t know is that A.J. — Alexander, on the birth certificate — was born with Goldenhar Syndrome, a very rare congenital defect.
One of his ears wasn’t fully developed — a telltale sign of Goldenhar.
The hospital team went to work, as questions and worry filled the minds of Jared and Sandra Sipe.
“What? Why?” Sandra asked. “Those questions.”
In the days that followed, they would get some answers, and would also get to take home their baby boy.
It would mark a life change within the Sipe home, and the start of a years-long journey to provide both scientific and spiritual support for a precious child who would need plenty of both to survive and thrive.
“God has a plan for him,” Sandra said. “And he chose us to be his parents for a reason as well.
“He’s in good hands. Daddy and mommy are going to do everything that’s possible to help him.”
The Sipes, of course, would not be alone. Family and friends, in abundance… doctors and nurses, able to help A.J. — their special little boy — through both short-term issues and the multiple surgeries that lay ahead.
And then, there was Angela.
Angela Forker is a pretty special person, herself.
The Sipes came to know her at first through her work with other children, then in emails back and forth. And the more they got to know her, the more they knew she could provide the family with something else: inspiration.
A photographer “by accident,” she’ll tell you, Angela melds her technical savvy with a rare creative flair to capture the essence of childhood joy — and to show that all babies are beautiful.
Angela at work: Setting up for a “Precious Baby Project” shoot
For A.J. — the Sipes’ “Golden Soldier” — that beauty is expressed through a scene depicting Noah’s Ark… a metaphor for life in a storm of a different sort.
“They didn’t expect to have a storm like this,” Angela explains. “And yet, now they’re seeing hope!”
Sandra admits, she worries about how others will see her “Golden Soldier.”
“Many children, they’ve been bullied at school,” she said.
Her wish is for everyone to see A.J.’s heart and fall in love with him, just like she did when he came into this world.
Angela and the Sipes shared the images of A.J. with the world, via Facebook, and the world spoke to them.
“Amazing. Love this scene and it is perfect for this little guy.”
“Omg he is so precious!! I just wanna snuggle him!!”
And, “What an adorable little man!”
The sentiments encourage the family that they’ll be able to weather any storm that may lie ahead.
“It’s a tough road, and something you have to deal with,” Jared said. “But just for a day or two, to see something like this does bring you a lot of joy and a lot of hope.”
“There’s this one picture…”
Angela always considered herself a bit… well, in her own words, “weird.” For as long as she can remember, she said, “I was just the weirdo.”
It made her a bit of an outsider, at times. But in her 20s, she said, she began to embrace it.
She got married, and joined her husband on missionary trips, where her personality and energy flourished.
Their travels also helped Angela thrive as an amateur photographer, but it was really something secondary to her religious calling.
Others, however, were taking notice. In particular, they saw how Angela connected with young children.
“I had so many people saying, ‘Angela, you have a gift. You need to pursue this,'” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m a missionary, you know? Missionaries aren’t newborn photographers.'”
She came around, eventually, and started her home-based photography business in 2015.
The inspiration for Angela’s charitable work with special needs children — which she calls the “Precious Baby Project” — can be traced to one particular child.
Her name was Madalyn, and while her time in this world was short, her legacy lives on through Angela and her photographs.
Madalyn’s mother, Chelsea Solis, and grandmother, Celia Johnson, called her their “Precious Warrior.”
Her fight would last 15 days.
Months before she was born at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, doctors knew that Madalyn had holoprosencephaly, a condition in which the brain fails to properly develop.
In its more severe forms, holoprosencaphaly is almost always fatal. Such was the prognosis for Madalyn.
Chelsea, who is herself hearing impaired and speaks through sign language, carried to term and gave birth, knowing the time she would have with her little girl would be limited to a matter of days.
Despite the near certain outcome, grandmother Celia said the family urged others to “rejoice, because she was so loved. She gave us so much hope. She beat a lot of odds.”
For two weeks, they had their baby girl to love and to cherish. Most of that time was at Riley, but toward the end, they got to take Madalyn home.
“They told us once she was removed from the ventilating machine, the breathing machine, that she would not last more than two hours,” Celia explains.
Instead, they got 23 hours… free of the tubes, the monitors, the hospital hustle and bustle.
“We were blessed being able to feed her with a bottle, ” Celia said. “She sucked on her pacifier. She smiled.
“We even got a picture where she’s showing what we call her little tooth — the only tooth she had. She was, she was loved by all of us. The family was gathered together. We just stayed by her that whole time.”
Angela was behind the lens. She knew the family from church and had already taken photos back at the hospital.
Now, they asked her into their home, to be there for whatever time they had with Madalyn.
“I was blessed to be there,” she told us. “They just knew that Madalyn had hours left to live. And they said, ‘We just want to be at home.'”
One image stands out among the photographs Angela snapped that day.
“There’s this one picture, and she just has her in her arms and she’s smiling, like, ‘This is my baby, and she’s the most beautiful baby, and I love her so much.'”
Madalyn passed away in her mother’s arms a short time later, but Angela says something else was born.
“Very shortly after, it was just birthed in my heart, and I believe it was from God,” she said. “I believe he just kind of spoke this vision, this dream into my heart to start the Precious Baby Project… because every baby is precious.”
Working out of your own home has its advantages. This isn’t one of them.
Angela moves her dining room table into the living room to create space for Elijah Gray’s “out of this world” photo shoot.
Elijah’s mother, Erika, and her boyfriend, Josh, are excited about the space-themed concept, starring their little boy — the “handsome… VERY handsome” son with Crouzon Syndrome. It’s a genetic disorder that meant nine surgeries before this photo shoot would arrive.
Four more are already scheduled.
Elijah uses a trachea tube, which Angela will actually incorporate into her artistic endeavor.
“With kids, where they have special needs or they may not make it, or something like that… sometimes they’ll get put up for foster care or for adoption, or even abort,” Josh says. “Something like this can show kids in a different light. You know, that they’re so much more than a medical condition.”
From concept to the final print, a lot of work goes into every Precious Baby photo. But the payoff is in the reactions.
“Ha ha! Who’s that?” Josh asks the young model as the whole family gets its first look at Angela’s spaced-out scene.
The picture will join other Precious Baby Project works on display at a local hospital and at the YMCA.
“I hope they see a beautiful baby boy,” Erika says. “I really do. That he is so strong, and that he is just like every other kid, happy go-lucky. ”
Suns, Moons and Stars
The sky finds its way into a lot of Angela’s designs.
The starry night.
Other images feature flowers and butterflies, dragons and unicorns.
And if it wasn’t already clear, one teddy bear-topped photo spells out what Angela tries to get across in every one of the prints: Hope… for a brighter tomorrow.
With each addition to the project, she says, there’s just a little bit more of that in the world… a world in which every child is precious.
Following the broadcast of “Precious Forever” by Fort Wayne’s NBC in August 2018, media outlets around the world picked up on the amazing things being done through the Precious Baby Project. See how Angela’s work is now lifting spirits worldwide:
- British Broadcasting Corporation: The photographer who puts disabled and severely ill children in fantasy scenes
- metro (France): Elle photographie des enfants malades dans des mondes imaginaires
- Parents (France): Elle met en scène des enfants malades le temps d’une séance photo magique
- Huffington Post (France): Ces enfants malades habitent des mondes imaginaires le temps d’une photo
- Huffington Post (United States): Whimsical Photo Series Showcases Babies With Special Needs
- People en Español: Mira las imágenes de esta fotógrafa que utiliza niños con necesidades especiales para hacer obras de arte
- msn/Dailymotion: Special needs children cast in beautiful fantasy scenes incorporating their wires, tubes and life-preserving apparatus as ‘accessories’
- NowThis: Photographer Raises Awareness for Babies With Special Needs
- PopSugar: Photographer Creates Epic Portrait Backdrops Made Specifically For Babies With Special Needs
- Inside Edition: Terminal 13-Month-Old Girl Dresses Up as ‘Forget-Me-Not’ in Whimsical Photo Shoot
To learn more about the Precious Baby Project, click here and visit the project website.