The Smallest Gift

MIFFLINTOWN – Sometimes a small gift, a kind word, and simple presence mean a great deal to someone who has lost an infant.

Dr. Mandy Maneval, of Family Practice Center Mifflintown, knows that scenario all too well. Two years ago this spring she lost her infant daughter only months after losing the little girl’s twin brother in the womb.

Not every word spoken to the grieving mother was of comfort. Not every note made her feel better. She was hurting and found herself wishing someone understood. It would be like a small gift to embrace the situation with others who have experienced such pain.

Maneval, her husband Rob Thawley, and friends Brad and Jeanette Gill started “The Smallest Gift” as a way to make such a need a fulfilled reality. The Gills met Maneval and her husband at their home church, St. Pius X Catholic Church in Selinsgrove. The Northumberland couple had also lost an infant daughter, McKinley, close to the time Maneval’s daughter, Abigail, had passed away.

The Gills, who are pharmacists, wanted to create a way to help grieving parents. The two couples also wanted to help the friends and extended family who felt at a loss of how to handle their loved ones’ circumstance.

“We just thought it is really a shame that there is no one there to help someone who does not know what to say,” Maneval said.

They began with a website, where both ladies blog and share their transparent feelings. The website offers suggestions of books and music and other resources for the grieving process. The Smallest Gift does educational outreach with the community and health care professionals on the matter of infant loss – whatever the cause, from a miscarriage to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

The organization aids in the grieving process for parents by sending care packages. The package includes a book on grieving, a blanket with the child’s name and birthdate, as well as a hand sewn heart filled with rice that weighs the exact amount as the infant.

Each blanket bears the words: “Sometimes love lasts a moment; sometimes love lasts a lifetime. Sometimes a moment is a lifetime.”

The rice-filled heart has held much significance for the parents, Maneval said.

She first learned of the idea on a grieving website. She mentioned on the site she would love to have a five-pound, one-ounce heart to symbolize her daughter. In a matter of days she received four hearts.

The hearts were such a comfort to her, she noted.

“I would take it with me wherever I would go … I would just lay it on my chest …”

Soon volunteers with The Smallest Gift began filling hearts with rice.

“We have given away ones as small as an ounce for a miscarried infant to a 12-pound baby who died of SIDS.”

Christmas cards are also mailed to families with whom the group has been in contact. It is a way to remind families that The Smallest Gift has not forgotten them and realizes the holidays are a time of grieving as well.

The Smallest Gift gives the packages to families who have lost infants up to 1 year old. The demand has been high. They have sent more than 600 packages across the country.

“We quickly ran out of time and money,” Maneval said, and the need for fundraising began to take shape.

To mail a care package would cost approximately $10.

“A package could cost $40 to $50 per project,” she said.

Many individuals have sold items as fundraisers for the Smallest Gift. The organization is hosting its own cookbook fundraiser with books being made available later this spring.

They also took part in “Raise the Region,” a recent 30-hour fundraising event that was part of the initiative of the First Community Foundations Partnership of Pennsylvania. More information is available on

Maneval keeps herself busy with her practice and the work with the Smallest Gift. But she is busy for other reasons as well. She and husband Rob adopted an infant son one year ago. Ivan has been the highlight of her days ever since.

“The name Ivan means ‘God is merciful,'” she said.

God’s mercy is something in which she strongly believes. Openly pro-life, Maneval is not afraid to share her faith and how God has helped her through this time of heartache.

Because of that mercy, she wants to extend love to others in the same situation.

“Sometimes we send out 100 (care packages) a month. I look at them all lined up on the counter and I just think to myself, ‘These are all families who are grieving hard right now.'”

The Smallest Gift is looking for more help. Anyone with interest in volunteering, donating materials for the rice hearts, making financial contributions, in need of a seminar at a local doctor’s office or hospital – may contact the organization at Those who have recently suffered loss may also contact the organization through email.

The group is also on Facebook. Most people who receive the care packages are just names that come to the group. But when they post their gratitude on the Facebook page, Maneval said, they become so real to her.

“I read those comments … and I remember this is why I do this.”