Madison Mick adores empty soda bottles.

The toddler plays with them, and then gets money when her dad returns them to the store.

On a recent weekday, the toddler laughed as she carried a plastic bottle around her Grand Rapids, Michigan, living room.

“She’s been playing with 2-liter bottles since early last year,” said her father, Jonathan Mick. “She just loves them.”

Mick is partial to soda cans, which he collects and drops off at Meijer. In return he gets a bit of recycling money to place in a bank account for Madison.

“Over the course of the year, she ends up with 70 or 80 bucks,” he said.

He’s thrilled to plan for his little girl’s future.

It hadn’t always been so certain.

An uncertain start

Madison’s uncertain future started on her birthdate: Oct. 13, 2018. She came into this world 12 weeks early, on the other side of the state.

Some family issues resulted in Mick receiving custody of Madison.

Upon release from the NICU in January, she weighed 5.4 pounds.

Mick took her to his home in Grand Rapids. He borrowed his sister’s car to take her to medical appointments.

He and Madison quickly bonded. And as Madison grew, their bond grew.

Her mother has since re-entered their lives.

Mick and Madison participate in the Spectrum Health Maternal Infant Health and Strong Beginnings programs.

Marva Jones, RN, a Strong Beginnings community health worker and a nurse case manager, provides support for the family.

“We provide education on healthy eating, baby’s development and we provide information on housing,” Jones said. “My team provides peer support for the family. Our team visits the family once or twice a month for 12 months, providing encouragement for dad and infant.”

The visits have made a huge difference in Madison’s growth and development.

“When Madison came home we had Maternal Infant Health services through Spectrum Health,” Mick said. “She had audiology, ophthalmology. They work with her to see how she’s developing, to make sure she’s meeting milestones.”

The better self

Early On Michigan provider Jessica Holland, who also works with Madison, said the little girl’s progress is impressive.

“I’ve seen a lot of motor development—her walking, her climbing, all that good stuff,” Holland said. “She’s very social. We’re working on getting her to play with toys the way they should be played with, instead of stepping on them. We’re working on baby signs.”

Madison wandered over to Jessica, where the two of them ripped up a piece of paper together.

“When she learns to do a skill, it’s there,” she said. “I come for an hour every week. I feel like she’s come a long way. We work a lot on parent-coaching, too, coaching dad on things he can do with Madison during the week.”

Madison started walking at 11 months and hasn’t stopped moving since.

“She is adventurous,” Mick said. “She loves to explore. A couple of months ago, she learned to climb up and down off the couch. She’s constantly getting into whatever she can reach. The living room is a baby-proof fortress, basically, because she gets into everything.”

When she’s not running around, Madison is content to rest in her father’s arms.

“She loves to be held,” she said. “She hates it when I leave the room.”

Mick served in the U.S. Navy from 2003 to 2012, including two deployments to the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf.

He said he has struggled with depression for years. Madison has become a shining beacon in his life.

“I was struggling with depression, then her mom got pregnant,” he said. “It got to the point where I knew I wouldn’t be able to be a father. I cut ties with her mom and distanced myself. I got myself together because I knew this one was going to be born.”

Mick entered counseling and built a stronger, more determined version of himself.

He bought a van, then a few months later, a house. A veterans group furnished the home with appliances and furniture.

“I would not have changed my life the way I did if it hadn’t been for Madison,” Mick said.

He scooped up the little girl in his arms.

“You are daddy’s favorite thing,” he said. “Ever.”