Houston Parents Revive Dormant MLH Chapter

When Paul and Cindy Belvedere’s son was three months old, he had open heart surgery to fix his ventricular septal and atrial septal heart defects.


We longed for a community outside of the medical field to support us,” Cindy said, “We’d ask doctors and nurses to stay and talk, but they were busy. We always said that when we had the time, we’d try and make a difference.”


Now 25, the Belvederes’ son, Luke, is a graduate of Penn State, where he was a member of the men’s gymnastic team. He only requires check-ups to make sure his heart is healthy. Last August, Paul and Cindy decided that it was time to look for ways to support families whose children have been diagnosed with CHD. After an internet search and a couple of phone calls, Paul was connected to the Houston chapter of Mended Little Hearts.


“They told me our timing couldn’t be better,” Paul said. The chapter had gone dormant and urgently needed new volunteers. The Belvederes were more than ready to step in and help.


Congenital Heart Defects in the US

Congenital Heart Defects, or CHD, are heart defects that babies are born with. They are the most-common birth defect in the United States and affect 1 in 110 people. About 40,000 babies are born with CHD every year.


Thanks to the evolution of medical treatment, many babies are able to have their CHD addressed and go on to live full, happy lives. However, the years spent treating this diagnosis can be stressful and hard on the children and their families alike. Mended Little Hearts was founded in 2004 to help address the unique support needs of families struggling with CHD diagnoses.


Mended Little Hearts offers a variety of programs to support CHD families, including accredited visiting, advocacy efforts and, perhaps most importantly, providing comprehensive and free online resources to families who have questions about living with CHD.


Supporting Families With Bravery Bags

While the Belvederes originally wanted to visit families in-person to offer support, Covid restrictions made that plan impossible. Instead, the Belvederes turned their attention to the Bravery Bag program. These bags are filled with toiletry items, comfort items, educational resources and items to entertain families while they are in the hospital.


“We raise funds and make deliveries every couple months to the Children’s Memorial Hermann and Texas Children’s hospitals,” Paul said. “We stuff 10 to 30 bags at a time.”


Because the Bravery Bags are self-funded, the Belvederes receive donations from family, friends and efforts from local chapter members, like a Christmas party thrown by a chapter leader where guests brought donations for the bags. “We’re also hoping to partner with more businesses,” Paul said.


With support from the community, the Belvederes have seen the Bravery Bag program grow quickly — they delivered 77 bags last year and are on track to deliver 165 bags this year. “Sometimes families end up in the hospital with only the clothes on their backs, and the hours can be long,” Paul said. The Bravery Bags are a solution to those issues by providing both essentials and items to help take the families’ minds off their time in the hospital.


As parents who supported their child through a CHD diagnosis, Paul and Cindy know just how important the community and resources that Mended Little Hearts provides can be. “Everyone at Mended Little Hearts is so generous with their time,” Cindy said. “They’re all so caring and have a different story to tell. It’s just rewarding to be a part of a great organization that educates and comforts families.”


Both Paul and Cindy find that Mended Little Heart’s focus on peer-to-peer support and resources for families is a unique and important part of the organization. It’s one of the reasons why they chose to volunteer for MLH in the first place.


Vital Volunteers

The Belvederes noted that they are fortunate to live in Houston, which is a hub for state–of-the-art medical care and provides lots of volunteer opportunities to help families. But, Cindy explained, there’s still a lot of work to be done. “We’ve barely scratched the surface,” she said. “We’re a small group in a big city, and we need the support.”


“There needs to be more awareness for people to take advantage of the resources,” Paul added.


Because of the grassroots nature of Mended Little Hearts, the organization is always on the lookout for volunteers to help lead the different initiatives that are offered. Paul and Cindy were grateful for the opportunity to get to make real change with direct efforts, but continued services rely on people signing up.


The Belvederes are optimistic about the growth of the Houston chapter and the potential for reaching so many families with the support they need. They’ve also been struck by the kinds of people they’ve met through their volunteer work with Mended Little Hearts.


“The people we’ve come into contact with have a lot of strength. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to go through with this. The volunteers sometimes have their own issues but they show strength and fortitude,” Paul said.

Paul and Cindy Belvedere won the MLH Regional Volunteer of the Year award in acknowledgement of the incredible work they’ve done. If you’re interested in supporting Mended Little Hearts, you can learn more about volunteer opportunities on the MLH website.