Every year on July 25, Noelle Moore celebrates the birth of her daughter, Finley Elizabeth, with a big party. Sadly, the guest of honor never attends.
Moore’s daughter died in 2013 when she was 23 days old. Finley had suffered severe brain damage during a delay in her birth at a Central Florida hospital. The harrowing ordeal led Moore to create The Finley Project, a Winter Park nonprofit to help other women who have lost an infant. In an equally important role, she has become an advocate for expectant mothers and for hospitals to be fully staffed with obstetricians 24/7.
“I have always known I had a calling,” she said. “I’ve always had a passion for women supporting women, and leadership involving women, but I didn’t know what shape it would take until Finley’s death.”
Moore had been in labor nearly 27 hours and needed an emergency cesarean section, but no doctor was available to perform it. During the 40 minutes she waited for an obstetrician to arrive, Finley was deprived of oxygen. The baby was put on life support, and doctors said she would never walk or talk.
Every detail about the devastating day Moore left the hospital without her daughter is vivid. “I remember the smell of the soap in a dispenser on the wall that the nurses used. I remember the lake I could see out the window in the room where Finley died.”
She felt lost. “The world looked different. I didn’t know how I could function and go forward,” she said, describing what she calls the “giant gap” between the hospital and home. Moore’s father had died five months earlier, and her husband left two weeks after Finley’s death.
“I didn’t have anybody who could relate to my experience or talk me through how to deal with it, and for me that was the gap,” she said. “When you watch your only child die in front of you, it’s probably the greatest grief a person can ever know. If you don’t have somebody who can stand there and say, ‘I got through it. You can, too,’ the likelihood of healing or any type of recovery is very low.”
Hungry for Community
Friends and family members helped Moore find counseling and a support group. “I was not OK with grieving in isolation and suffering silently. I was hungry for community and kept thinking there had to be other people out there who had gone through this. Women who have lost a child need somebody to be an ambassador of hope for them.”
Even in those early days, as Moore struggled to deal with her enormous loss, she began to think of how to help other mothers whose babies have died. “I thought, ‘Who helps women who don’t have a strong support system?’” That led to her lifeline, The Finley Project, a seven-part holistic program formed in 2014 that offers free physical, emotional and spiritual support to women who have lost babies from 22 weeks of pregnancy through age 2.
The program helps with funeral arrangements and provides grocery gift cards, a maid service and massage therapy as well the counseling Moore had known she desperately needed.
“Some women have never gone to counseling before,” Moore said, “and it can save their lives. For many women, it is the most important road to healing, but if there’s no food in the house or the house is a mess, they will not be able to make it a priority.”
Every mother is matched with her own volunteer support coordinator ready to help with anything she needs. Almost all of the volunteers have also lost a child and understand the grief. “She serves as that ‘ambassador of hope.’ She has been in those shoes,” Moore said. Most women are referred to The Finley Project for help through hospitals.
Moore is just as steadfast in her role as an educator and advocate for fully staffed hospitals — and helping to prevent infant deaths in the first place. As CEO of Know Moore Consulting, she works with hospitals to establish a “hospitalist” model that staffs OB-GYNs 24/7 to care for obstetric patients and help manage emergencies.
She wants to educate mothers so they are prepared to ask the hospital where they will give birth if there is an OB on staff at all times in case their doctor is not available or is delayed getting to the hospital. “Who would have thought to ask if there’s going to be a doctor there to help? It’s not a dumb question. Minutes matter! Women need to understand the staffing at their hospital. I want to shout this from the rooftops.”
The Finley Project has helped almost 300 mothers around the country through the worst days of their lives. It raises money through grants, donations and its Annual Celebration of Life Gala, which honors the birthday of Finley and the lives of other babies who have died. Moore has set a goal to serve 600 mothers by 2024. First, though, she wants to raise enough money to help 90 mothers in the fiscal year that began July 1. It costs $1,500 to sponsor a mother.
One of those mothers was Chelsea Johnson, who lost one of her twins, Christopher, to sudden infant death syndrome in 2015. The surviving twin, Calais, was born with Down syndrome. “The Finley Project helped us pick up the pieces, and we did not feel alone,” she said. At the time, her husband was laid off, so on top of the shock and grief, they were worried about how they would feed their family. “We prayed about it, and I kid you not, that day in the mail came gift cards for Publix from The Finley Project,” Johnson said in a video featured on the nonprofit’s website. “I can’t tell you how much of a blessing that was.” Soon after, Johnson became a volunteer.
Prepare to Hear ‘No’
Although building The Finley Project has been rewarding, it has not been easy. Moore has plenty of advice for budding entrepreneurs. “A lot of well-intentioned people want to do something good for the world. I tell people, ‘You’d better believe in it enough to hear “no” 100 times in one day and still know that what you’re going to do matters.’”
Her other suggestions: Surround yourself with experts in their fields. “You can’t do everything yourself, and if you try, nothing gets done right.” She said it’s important to set up the foundation and put the right building blocks in place: Create your mission, develop your board, set up as a nonprofit, take classes, find a mentor. “Make sure you have a professional presence via your website and simple marketing collateral. Don’t go out there in the world before you’re ready.”
She also has a tip or two about what to say to a woman who has lost an infant. “The biggest mistake people make is not saying anything at all,” Moore said. “You can say, ‘I don’t know what to say. It’s horrible and I’m sorry.’”
Moore, who earned a degree in English with a minor in marketing and communications at Rollins College, returned to Rollins to learn about the nonprofit world. She earned a certificate in nonprofit management at the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership. She is also writing a book about loss.
In her downtime, Moore enjoys the beach, her church, hiking and camping. A favorite spot is Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Engaged with her community, she is a trained grief share facilitator, a founding member of the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Resource Network, and a member of the Association for Fundraising Professionals. She won Ovation Awards from the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce in 2017 and 2018.
“I believe many of us are called to make meaning out of hard things,” Moore said, “whether it’s to start a business or nonprofit or to look at the world differently. I think we have to look at the hard things and evaluate why they happened and what we are supposed to do with them.
“I’m grateful for my faith, which keeps me going, I’m grateful to be in a better place than I was in 2013, and I’m grateful for the people who didn’t give up on me.”