WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Sporting a t-shirt that read “Miracle Baby,” little Bryce Cunningham of Exeter was the center of attention Sunday morning as dozens of his fans gathered around him before the start of the March for Babies walk at King’s College Betzler Field.
Sponsored by the March of Dimes Northeast, the walk is the organization’s largest annual fundraiser.
Bryce, 1, who was the ambassador of this year’s walk, was born 13 weeks early, weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces and was 12 ½ inches long. He suffered from respiratory problems due to underdeveloped lungs and spent his first 92 days of life in a newborn intensive care unit at Lehigh Valley-Cedar Crest Hospital.
“The number one thing I’m grateful to the March of Dimes for is the surfactant therapy he received,” said Bryce’s mother, Kristen, pointing out that the March of Dimes funded research for the therapy that helps preterm babies breathe easier.
When Bryce was born, Kristen, who is a second-grade teacher at Greater Nanticoke School District, and her husband, Jason, stayed at the Hackerman-Patz House at the hospital to be closer to their son.
“A friend set up a website to raise money to help us stay down there,” she said.
“I ran out of sick time and wasn’t getting a paycheck,” Kristen said, adding that roughly $8,000 was raised through the site. “Our goal is to raise $10,000 but I wanted to raise at least $8,000 so we felt like we were giving back,” she said.
Turning to greet the members of “Team Bryce,” Kristen was excited to see little Wesley Jarus, who was Bryce’s roommate in the NICU. Also born at 24 weeks gestation, Wesley spent 5 1/2 months at Lehigh, then another 4 months at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Wearing a Superman t-shirt, the chubby-cheeked toddler with swirls of soft dark hair, relaxed in his stroller as his parents waited for the walk to begin.
“He was born with chronic lung disease, pulmonary hypertension and a chronic heart defect,” said his mother, Leila Vanderlick. “It was a struggle at first, but he’s wonderful now.”
Leila and Wesley’s father, Rich Jarus, both of Pittston, stayed with Wesley every other day and every weekend when he was at both hospitals. “It was hard, but we knew he was in good hands,” said Rich, adding that Wesley finally came home three days before Christmas. “It was a good Christmas.”
The event featured games, kids’ crafts and other fun activities. Families also purchased flags to decorate to honor the memory of children who’ve passed away from either pre-term birth or other anomaly. The flags were placed along the track and referred to as the “Garden of Angels.”
Sunday’s event not only helped raise money toward the March of Dimes goal of $171,500, but was also a way of bringing families together, said Dolores Smith, state director of programming services for the March of Dimes.
“It’s a community coming together to raise awareness and to meet other families,” she said. “It’s a celebration of children.”