Monday, August 4, 2008

A refreshed spirit

This past Saturday I returned home from our 2008 National Youth Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. While I have been to many March of Dimes conferences in the past three years, this one in particular had a much greater impact on me than I anticipated.

Let me first give you some background on the National Youth Council. We are a group of twenty college volunteers from around the country who build youth volunteers efforts for the March of Dimes. Every year, our National Youth Council has three meetings we attend; a volunteer leadership conference, a staff conference, and our own National Youth Council meeting in White Plains, NY. Every three years; however, the March of Dimes holds a National Youth Conference for youth from all over the country to attend. This year, the National Youth Conference was held in July on the Georgia Tech campus.

Our March of Dimes National Youth Council began planning this conference fourteen months ago in conjunction with the March of Dimes National Office. The purpose of the conference was to recruit life-long volunteers for the March of Dimes and provide these students with the resources they needed to implement March of Dimes work in their communities. As a council, we were divided into committees to plan workshops, general sessions, attendee experience activities, special events and excursions, and many other logistics that went into planning the conference. To the left is a picture taken of some of our National Youth Council members. Megan Myers (on the far right), our 2008-2009 National Youth Council chair, is also from Ohio but attends the University of Pennsylvania.

The National Youth Council arrived to the Georgia Tech campus on July 27th, two days before the attendees arrived. We had meetings from morning to night to ensure that we had gone over every last detail. When the attendees finally arrived, we were excited to meet the one hundred and fifty student volunteers and get our conference agenda rolling. Each National Youth Council member served as a dorm floor leader which consisted of about twenty attendees. Since the title of our conference was "Destination: Healthy Babies," each floor was a different location. My floor was Kansas City, which is known for the biggest "Bikers for Babies Ride." To the right is a picture of our dorm floor taken during the Amazing Race competition. Our dorm floor had attendees from Ohio, Nebraska, Alaska, Nevada, and Oregon.

While our National Youth Council responsibilities created a great deal of stress and little-to-no sleep, it was clear that the attendees were having a wonderful time. They were excited to learn more about the March of Dimes, take part in workshops, and listen to our inspirational guest speakers like Greg Gumbel (pictured to the left) and Kari Strug (former gold medalist in gymnastics at the '96 Olympics). Everyone was truly moved by the heart-wrenching stories from our ambassador families. Premature birth is more common in multiple births. The mother of these triplets (pictured to the right), credit the March of Dimes for their survival because of the amazing medical breakthroughs and advances funded by March of Dimes research.

By the end of the week, the attendees from all states were intermingling, networking, and sharing ideas as if they had known each other all along. During a reflection period on my dorm floor, I was truly touched by some of the remarks made by the attendees. One high school student in particular, shared with me that this conference had changed her life fovever. In July 1994, Lauren's mom lost a son to a birth defect and a year later lost a daughter. Devastated by these events, the mother decided she did not want another mother to go through this pain. She soon became involved with the March of Dimes, and now Lauren follows in her foot steps. After attending our 2008 National Youth Conference, Lauren has created a group to further motivate teenagers to take their volunteer efforts to the next level. This is an excerpt from the note she wrote me:

The March of Dimes will fight day and night until the day all babies are born healthy. All of the teens around the United States who are a part of March of Dimes Team Youth need to hear the mission. They need to realize that every person, every dime, and every hour they spend volunteering changes a life and changes the future of the March of Dimes and babies born all around the world. That is why I feel that the group MOD.youth.motivation. will teach teens the mission of the March of Dimes and give them a reason to work and volunteer that much harder and be able to have a lot of motivation. Every teen counts and makes a difference. My goal is that every Chain Reaction across the United States will join this group and that every teen will work even harder. The March of Dimes has changed my life forever. The things I have learned and the people I have met will always be life long friends of mine whom I will never forget. My name is Lauren Stephens and I plan on being a life long volunteer for the March of Dimes.

I asked for permission to post a piece of her message, because it displays the energy and drive of our youth volunteers today. Lauren's passion for this organization reminds me why we push ourselves so hard in our volunteer work...why we work day in and day out raising funds and heightening awareness for this cause. It is our duty- our responsibility as the next generation of parents. I volunteer for the March of Dimes because I know that the end result is worth it. Thanks to March of Dimes research, we now know that surfactant therapy can be given to premature babies to help their lungs develop and that women can decrease their chance of having a baby with a neural tube defect by over 70% by taking 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. These are just two amazing discoveries that have saved thousands of lives.

The March of Dimes was founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to conquer polio in 1938. Seventeen years later, it did just that. The March of Dimes then broadened its mission to prevent all birth defects, and in recent years has focused on preventing preterm birth. These problems cost our society billions of dollars and have devasting effects on families. In addition, infants born prematurely are more likely to develop cerebral palsy, blindness, and mental retardation.

I want to be there the day when we can ensure that all babies are born healthy. I want to be there when no family has to suffer the heartbreak of seeing their baby hooked up to a ventilator in the NICU struggling to survive. I want to be there the day when the March of Dimes must once again redirect its mission, because birth defects and premature are no longer a problem. The organization has done it once, we can do it again. My March of Dimes volunteer work will end the day we can ensure all babies are born healthy and full-term.

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