Burt Rich: 2023 NILMDTS Outstanding Volunteer of the Year

Written by
Mackenzie Mahon

Each year Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep honors a variety of volunteers for their contributions to our cause and their embodiment of our four core values: Passionate Contribution, Prioritize People, Unyielding Integrity, and Continuous Growth. Today we’re excited to introduce you to long-time volunteer Burt Rich, who was selected by the staff as the 2023 NILMDTS Outstanding Volunteer of the Year. 

When Burt Rich’s grandson TJ was 17-years-old, he was a very promising athlete. He’d been ranked in the top 500 high school junior football players in the United States and invited to play at a prestigious football camp, to which Burt accompanied him. Soon after he returned from camp, though, TJ’s football physician noticed a lump in his upper leg that hadn’t gone away despite months of massage. After being referred to a variety of doctors, TJ was eventually diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a cancer that forms in soft tissues. He started treatment in February 2008, and Burt and his wife, Norma, were there every step of the way.

TJ, a three-sport athlete, continued playing soccer throughout his treatment, and Burt didn’t miss a game. “I took lots of photos,” Burt reports. “Thousands of photos.” Those photos were a comfort when TJ regretfully passed away in 2010. He was 19-years-old. 

A few months after TJ died, Burt’s wife Norma came across an article about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and told him, “You might be interested in this.” Burt had a lifelong interest in photography, but taking photos of TJ had taught him just how important it was to capture memories when you could. After chatting with a local volunteer, Burt decided to apply.

Over the years Burt had volunteered to take photographs of his family, at sporting events, and for various nonprofits, but he didn’t have many examples of the kind of portraiture NILMDTS requires volunteer photographers to demonstrate. In 2010 he started volunteering not as a photographer, but as an assistant. “I changed a lot of baby outfits and held the lights and reflectors,” Burt laughed. On every session he assisted, he paid attention to the photographers. He attended trainings and worked on his photography until he was accepted as a NILMDTS photographer. That wasn’t the end of his growth, though - Burt soon got the necessary equipment to retouch his photos, and spent hours watching training videos on Lightroom and Photoshop so that he could provide the best gift possible to his families.

That was over 13 years ago. Since then, Burt has worn almost every hat a volunteer can at Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. He’s served as an Assistant to Photographer and Affiliated Photographer, and also as a Dispatcher, Digital Retouch Artist, Area Coordinator, an instructor for other Area Coordinators, Regional Coordinator, and Volunteer Support Team Member. Currently, in addition to leading a local NILMDTS team in Southern Tennessee and Northern Alabama, Burt is the Photographer Mentor Administrator, working to assist applicants who need a bit of mentoring before becoming Affiliated Photographers. It’s a full-circle moment for Burt: he needed a little help at the beginning of his NILMDTS journey before he was ready to be a photographer, and now he gets to help others prepare for their own volunteer role. 

Officially, Burt has been a part of gifting over 205 families with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photos. Unofficially, it’s hundreds, if not thousands, more. For years Burt has been a mentor and a friend to the hundreds of NILMDTS volunteers around the world, and has helped these volunteers help their families. It’s because of this truly immeasurable reach and extraordinary service that the NILMDTS staff awarded Burt Rich with the 2023 Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award.

When reflecting on his time with NILMDTS, there were many sessions that stood out in Burt’s memory. One involved parents who explained with wisdom and grace to their older children that their baby sister would not be coming home. In that moment, Burt looked over at the baby’s grandfather. “The pain I saw on his face,” Burt paused. “Well, I can certainly relate to it. The picture of that granddad sticks with me.”  

With each session Burt talked about, you could see his compassion. He remembered family member’s names and stories. He spoke often of how beautiful their babies were. Showing off one of his pictures, he chuckled, “That dad might have been a tough guy with the doctors, but he was sure into his baby.” Looking at another image of a grandparent with her granddaughter, he said, “Can you imagine what this image means to a grandmother?” 

Helping other volunteers grow and serve well, whether through his time mentoring new photographers, or helping local leaders with their teams, has always been fulfilling to Burt. But ultimately, it’s the photography itself that he comes back to. “Being able to take pictures for these parents is the thing I’m most proud of. I tell people that when I leave the hospital after a session, I realize I don’t have any problems. And it’s true. It’s an intense experience, and it’s cathartic. It kinda sets the world right-side-up in a strange and indescribable way.

Baby Jase Jones by Burt Rich

“I tell other photographers, ‘This is the most important photography you’ll ever do.’ It’s the photography that will last the longest, seen by multiple generations most likely, and will become some of the families’ only tangible memories of their baby. It’s not documentary photography. The photos might document what happened, but they show what was happening in the hearts of the people in the room more than what was happening in the moment. Those families wanted to show how much they love that child, and they show that by how they interact. That’s what you’re capturing.” 

After 13 years of volunteering at Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, Burt’s photography and editing styles have grown, but so has he as a person. When asked how NILMDTS changed him, Burt said, “I don’t know if I can adequately describe that. I think I’m a more rounded person. I’m more of a type-A personality, and maybe not the most sensitive person in the world, but going through what we went through with our daughter and TJ really prepared me for this… this 13-year extension of being more sensitive to people. I’ve learned a little bit more about how to be generous, how to give, what the phrase ‘it’s more blessed to give than to receive’ means, and it’s a lesson I probably would not have learned otherwise. 

“There has to be a certain amount of trust in a person to invite someone into their grief,” Burt continued. “And learning how to honor that trust is a big step for a lot of people. I know it was for me. I’ve been in sessions where it was almost like a party [celebrating the baby], I’ve been in sessions where everyone was in pain, bawling their head off - there’s no limit to how people express their grief and the pain of their grief. And you kind of have to learn how to navigate the waters when they’re calm and when they’re stormy. But I think that most people could do that.” 

Over the years Burt has invited people into the waters of his own grief, sharing the story of TJ’s diagnosis and passing. By volunteering in TJ’s honor, Burt carries forth a legacy of love and support to families like his own experiencing loss. 

Baby Golden McDermott by Burt Rich

When we asked what he wanted to say to the families he’s served over the years, Burt grew quiet and reflective. With a tear in his eye, he said passionately, “I remember you, and it was an honor to do this for you.”