Eleven years ago, on a March night in Birmingham, Alabama, Eric Rzeszut and his wife, Raya, got a crash course in neonatal intensive care. That’s when their daughter, Sophie, was born eight weeks early after her dropping heart rate prompted an emergency Caesarean section.
“For us, in one day, it went from a completely textbook pregnancy to us suddenly having a premature newborn at 11 o’clock that night,” said Rzeszut, who now works as the help desk manager for information technology at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. Sophie weighed only 4 pounds at birth and spent 22 days in the NICU as doctors worked to stabilize her heart rate and help her gain weight.
This year, the Rzeszuts – including a healthy and happy 11-year-old Sophie – are the ambassador family for Charlottesville’s March of Dimes chapter. On Saturday, they will join other local supporters for the 2017 March for Babies, part of a nationwide series of marches raising money for March of Dimes.
“We were very fortunate, because a lot of preemies have lifelong health conditions that Sophie avoided,” Rzeszut said. Still, he said, the experience made the family acutely aware of the need for continued research and support for others in similar situations.
“One of the few information resources we had at the time was a March of Dimes packet explaining what we could expect in the NICU,” Rzeszut said. “We read that voraciously.”
Now, the Rzeszuts are fighting to bring those resources to more and more parents. Even before Sophie’s first birthday, her parents began raising funds for the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that supports research and programs preventing birth defects and reducing premature births and infant mortality. For the next 10 years, the family participated in each annual fundraising walk and raised money as “Team Sophie!”
Since 2007, Team Sophie! has raised more than $12,000 for neonatal research and support. However, this year marks the Rzeszuts’ first stint as an ambassador family, tasked with leading fundraising among all teams in their local area.
“As an ambassador family, one of your primary responsibilities is tell your story and share why this cause is so personally important to you,” Rzeszut said. “It is so important to get the word out, get people to come to the walk, donate and raise awareness.”
The family has spread the word among friends and coworkers, and many of Eric Rzeszut’s colleagues in the McIntire School of Commerce are participating and donating. The Rzeszuts have also held other fundraising events, including one at Charlottesville’s Random Row Brewery, and are planning a tour to meet with families in the NICU at the UVA Medical Center.
Within UVA, Rzeszut has worked with third-year student Courtney Haywood, president of UVA’s March of Dimes chapter and the only student member of the Charlottesville march’s executive leadership team.
Haywood, a government major, began raising money for March of Dimes as a sixth-grader, after she sang the national anthem for a local race and became interested in the cause.
“I met children who were the same age as me but had a rough start in life, because of premature births,” she said.
From sixth grade through her graduation from Tidewater Academy in Wakefield, Haywood led a team, “Courtney’s Crusaders,” that raised about $1,500 each year, and attended regional March of Dimes events as a student ambassador. When she came to UVA, she immediately joined the March of Dimes club on Grounds.
This year, the club sponsored a bingo night and a benefit “Glow Run” nighttime 5K race. Additionally, the club partnered with the UVA chapter of Tri Sigma sorority, which fundraises for March of Dimes each year. Haywood also had an opportunity to tour the NICU at the UVA Medical Center.
“It was so great to see where the money we raise can go and how much impact we can have,” she said.
The Charlottesville March for Babies begins Saturday at 9 a.m. at The Park. Visit the event website for more information.