MARYVILLE, Mo. — It’s a somber affair, with the air nonetheless of a family reunion.
As Lisa and Grady Hilsabeck, and their daughter Malainee Montgomery, unload their truck of the cat and dog treats, toys and other goodies into the lobby of the New Nodaway Humane Society animal shelter, everyone catches up on what they’ve missed, all smiles and laughs.
“You look totally different than last year,” one staff member remarks.
That’s not all: Malainee, formerly Hilsabeck, got married, too.
Shelter manager Wendy Combs, as if part of a well-choreographed routine, lends a hand and starts arranging the supplies for the picture they know they’ll take later.
Twix, a rambunctious and friendly 9-month-old kitten who doesn’t seem to have met a human she wouldn’t like a pet from, wastes no time with pleasantries and dives headlong into a box of toys, unperturbed that they’re still in plastic wrap as she submerges herself like a 9-year-old human counterpart might in a ball pit.
Another staff member sets down her headphones, the pop hip-hop pounding out of them just loud enough to provide some background noise to the event. She and her coworker figure out who’s got a better shot of reaching the ceiling to hang an ornament Lisa brought with her: a heart inside a wire-frame angel, a bell hanging below it.
After some rearranging, they find a spot for it, where it will hang in perpetuity, another reminder of Lisa’s and Grady’s daughter, Baylee, in the place she loved.
On Tuesday, Baylee Nicole Hilsabeck would have turned 21. For the fourth consecutive birthday, her parents and sister are spending it without her, helping the animals she cared for.
Lisa, Grady and Malainee tote in more and more cat litter, dog bones, food and supplies. Donations from friends and family didn’t dwindle even during a tumultuous 2020, Lisa says, totaling more than $2,100, which will go toward microchips for the hopeful pets.
This year, donations were split between this drive — what they call Baylee’s Blessing — and the St. Francis Foundation’s Gala, which in 2021 is dedicated to raising money for mental health initiatives. The Hilsabecks are one of the organization’s ambassadors for the gala, speaking about Baylee, who took her own life at the age of 16.
Each year, close to her birthday, they meet up at the animal shelter, where Baylee liked to spend her time, and drop off supplies. Like in past years, they’ll spend a couple of hours there, giving the animals some attention, and staff members too.
“This is a very good thing for our family to do for healing,” Lisa says, unable to say more before choking up.
Like a family ritual, they all assemble after the truck is unloaded, Combs included — even Twix, who shows a pleased indifference to all the activity around her toy-filled box — squeezing behind all the supplies they’ve collected for the annual photo.
And Lisa clutches a picture of Baylee, front and center, frozen in time at 16, bringing her blessing to the shelter for another year.