Women create calendar to raise funds for NICU families

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, 8:59 p.m.

Gwen Schoonover and Stephanie Cipriani left their jobs last year so that they could spend as much time as possible with their premature babies in West Penn Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Their months-long vigils took an emotional and financial toll, so the women spearheaded creation of a 2013 calendar featuring babies from the West Penn NICU, with the proceeds to help other families pay for meals, parking, even phone calls when they can't make the trip to be with their small children.

“We can never pay back the NICU what they've done for us, so we're going to pay it forward,” said Cipriani, 31, of Wellsburg, W.Va. “We're going to help other families.”

“I feel great to be able to help somebody else in the same situation,” said Schoonover, 34, of Cranberry. “We have this bond. Preemie moms want to be able to help each other.”

The calendars sell for $20, with $13 from each sale going toward the NICU fund, and the remaining for printing costs. Filmet, a graphics company in Cheswick, loses $1 dollar on each calendar printed, and Canonsburg photographer Melissa Hess donated her time to photograph the babies, all NICU patients, Cipriani said.

Schoonover's twins, Jacey and Owyn were born June 14, 2011, at 25 weeks, nearly 3 12 months early. They spent several months in the West Penn NICU before being transferred in October to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville. Owen died the following January. Jacey is doing well, her mother said.

Schoonover left her job as an orthodontic assistant at Rowan Dental Associates in Cranberry to spend as much time as possible with Jacey and Owyn, though she returned in March.

“You lose income, and there's driving and parking and food; it really takes a toll on you,” Schoonover said. “We were fortunate, though. We had a lot of support through family and church — they gave us gas cards and gift cards. There are so many families that don't have that support, though.”

Cipriani has two thriving twins, Noah and Luca, born 13 weeks early on Sept. 12, 2011, who spent nearly two months in the NICU and two more weeks in transitional care before heading home.

“If not for the NICU, my boys would not have survived,” Cipriani said. “They treated us like we were family. Many hospitals, you're just a patient, just a number. At West Penn, they were more than that, and we were more than that.”

Cipriani, who had been an accountant, said she believes volunteers already may have sold about 150 calendars.

Dr. Nilima Karamchandani, the medical director of the NICU, which treats about 750 babies a year, said the unit sponsors an annual golf outing that raises $10,000 to $15,000 for the fund, in addition to other fundraising and volunteer efforts.

With families coming from throughout the Tri-State area, Karamchandani said, the unit helps with discounted parking, at $3, gas cards, money for meals and other expenses. The unit sponsors a toll-free number so parents can call the NICU for free.

Pizza parties unite parents to talk about their experiences, and the NICU buys items for special events to keep families' spirits up, such as Terrible Towels and picture frames on Mother's Day and Father's Day.

“Some parents won't even ask (for financial help),” Karamchandani said. “We will find out who is the most needy. There is such a financial burden for a family with a baby in the NICU.”

Of Schoonover's and Cipriani's efforts, Karamchandani said, “They said they knew we would use the money wisely, on whatever the needs are. Every dollar counts.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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