CLOSTER, N.J. -- What was supposed to be the happiest time in borough couple Lisa and Kurt Vreeland's lives collapsed when their first-born son, Robby, died four days later.
In her grief, Lisa Vreeland turned to a blue teddy bear that a dear friend gave her on the August 2009 day that their boy was born.
"After Robby died, I clung to this bear. It still sits on my bed," said Vreeland, who eventually found in the stuffed animal the inspiration for Robby's Rabbits.
Created in 2011, the non-profit group collects stuffed animals -- mainly bunnies -- to "fill the aching arms of a grieving parents," Vreeland said.
Robby's Rabbits has delivered more than 15,000 rabbits in all 50 U.S. states and 10 foreign countries since its inception. Donations cover all costs.
"I am adamant that parents who have buried their child should never have to pay," Vreeland said. "They already paid the ultimate price."
The idea hit Vreeland after Good Samaritan Hospital announced a need for stuffed animals during a seminar for grieving parents. She immediately recalled a promise she made to her doctor, Fred Rezvani.
"Make something good come out of this devastation," he had told her.
Vreeland asked friends and family members on Facebook to donate stuffed animals that she could bring to the hospital on what would have been Robby's second birthday.
Overwhelming response spawned a Robby's Rabbits web site two hours later.
Vreeland chose the organization's symbol thanks to a Velveteen Rabbit quote read at Robby's funeral: "Real isn't how you are made. It's a thing that happens to you. When someone loves you for a long time, not just to play with you, but really loved you, then you become real."
Each donated bunny carries the quote.
"This is not the way I planned on being a mom for Robby," Vreeland said, "but this is the life given and I live that as graciously as I can.
"The animals are never going to replace the loss," she said, "but it's letting someone know they are not alone."
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