Brittany Spence has told the story hundreds of times, but even 10 years later, her voice can still catch on the details. Remembering the children alone, that’s what gets her. As she spent weeks watching over her newborn son Forrest while he fought a life-threatening infection, she noticed that many of the other young patients went hours or days without visitors. She recognized, even in her darkest time, that the ability to sit at her critically ill child’s bedside was a privilege many parents did not have.
When Forrest died at 55 days old, Brittany and her husband David were determined to preserve their son’s memory with a fund to help others going through similar journeys. Beginning on that devastating week in 2007, the Forrest Spence Fund has since expanded to Nashville and Chattanooga, and has already provided more than 26,000 forms of non-medical assistance — from hot meals to utility payments to grief counseling — allowing families throughout Tennessee to focus on healing, even when the worst comes to pass.
Now the Forrest Spence Fund’s Executive Director and the mother of three more children — Austin, 9; Miller, 7; and Maggie, 4 — Brittany’s days are filled to capacity. We sat down at her administrative home base inside Independent Presbyterian Church to talk about the fund’s impact as well as how she sustains the hope and energy to fulfill this calling. Meet today’s FACE of Memphis, Brittany Spence.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee, which is 30 miles north of Nashville. I grew up the youngest, with two older brothers. I’m very competitive by nature — I constantly had to be as fast as my brothers, always kind of had that drive.
After becoming a teacher and youth director, how did you make the transition to focus on helping parents?
We were thrust into parenthood not in a way that you ever want to be. All of a sudden our lives became living day in and day out in the hospital with our son and watching him really struggling to live. It was very, very difficult on me and my husband, David — who are married, who had two incomes, who had an incredible support system and who had a church that loved us.
Other people didn’t have that. My son was in bed 20, and beds 19 and 18 and 17 and 16 are kids who have no one. I’m sitting there reading to him or singing to him or praying over him or rubbing his head, and you look over and the 12-year-old is sitting there alone, and the 2-year-old is sitting there alone. And it crushed me. In that moment, I went, OK, I know I need to focus on him, but I can’t unsee what I’ve seen.
So yes, our experience made the fund happen, but really it was born out of watching other people and just thinking, These people need help; they need support. When you don’t have that, it kills families. We realized how much the child — the patient — needs their family, and that family needs somebody.
What did the first phase of the fund look like?
It was born the weekend he was dying. We knew he took a really bad turn. That Saturday night, 24 hours before he died, my husband looked at me and said, “I want to do something. I want to call it the Forrest Spence Fund.” And I looked at him and said, “I don’t think I can do it. I don’t know if I’m going to survive, much less do anything else.” And he said, “Well, we’re going to do it. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we’re going to do something.”
Forrest died on Sunday night, November 4, at a little past 10 p.m. And then the next day, we asked a guy from Hope Christian Community Foundation if he would come and meet with us, and he came Monday morning to our home and told us what it would look like to start a donor-advised fund, so that’s how we started.
What are your personal goals? What drives you?
My kids are very close in age, and so it’s so important to me that we are tight. I think my words are, “You should treat your siblings better than your friends. Think through that — if your friend sat in your seat at the dinner table, would you karate-chop them? No. So treat your siblings like you would treat your friends.”
For me, I probably need to focus a little more on my own well-being and health. As a mother and as someone who does run a nonprofit, that can go by the wayside.
What are you most proud of?
We had a whole lot of people tell us that our marriage was going to fail, and we really chose each other. We really looked at each other and said, “This is going to suck, and it does suck, and you’re going to grieve one way, and I’m going to grieve another.” It was hard and took counseling, and it took a lot of being open with each other, but we’re stronger because of it. I think we’re both really proud of what the other has been able to accomplish.
Taking some time to decompress is an important part of maintaining your ability to do this work. How do you take a break and recharge?
We have a farm that’s an hour away, and we go there. We have no internet there, and we’ll really disconnect. I read, I nap. My husband laughs that we walk in the door, and I get down on that couch and I’m almost asleep in a minute. People think that I am an extrovert, but I would call myself an outgoing introvert. I recharge 100% by myself. I have to have alone time. I need breathers.
What are your favorite Memphis family activities?
We like outdoor stuff. We love Shelby Farms and the Big Backyard at Memphis Botanic Garden. We like to go down by the river and throw footballs and Frisbees and maybe go get pizza or go to Miss Cordelia’s and get snacks … going on bike rides on the Greenline. I feel like that’s what we trend towards, more of the outdoor stuff.
What’s your best advice?
To be kind and uplifting in your words and your actions and the way you treat other people.
What are three things you can’t live without?
ChapStick, earrings – you won’t see me without earrings – and a ponytail holder.
Thank you, Brittany, for sharing your story with us. If you would like to get involved with the Forrest Spence Fund or contribute to their holiday toy drive, visit forrestspencefund.org.
Thank you to Micki Martin for today’s beautiful photos of Brittany.
Meet more amazing Memphis women in our FACES archives. Click here, and prepare to be inspired!