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Michael’s Feat Helps Seriously Ill Newborns and Families in Ocean and Monmouth Counties

7-16-14

Erin Pedrini
Web Production Assistant

Dana Puharic and Alex Bean. Photo courtesy of Tracy Bean.

“Who would have even known that I would be running a non-profit organization and be the spokesperson for seriously ill newborns? It has been an incredible journey, I’ll tell you that,” said Michael’s Feat: The Michael Gerard Puharic Memorial Fund, Inc. founder Dana Puharic. Michael’s Feat is a non-profit organization she started with her husband that works to help seriously ill newborns and their families in Ocean and Monmouth Counties, in memory of Puharic’s son Michael.

Puharic said that she learned that Michael was sick when she was five months pregnant. She said that she and her husband Adam were not sure at that point what the outcome would be when Michael was born but they knew wanted to be the best parents that they could be. Michael was born on July 29, 2000 and passed away on Aug. 1, 2000. The idea for the foundation started shortly after when the family requested donations instead of flowers for Michael’s funeral so that they could use the money to help other families, the way that the hospital staff had helped them.

“When Michael was born we had nothing to prepare for his birth because we weren’t even sure if he was going to make it through birth so the doctors and nurses right there on the spot gave us their own things. They purchased clothing for us, one of the doctors brought in their Pack and Play, and a nurse brought in a car seat. Those are the things that you don’t think about, the material items. The last thing on my mind were material items. We started using the funds to say we are going to do this in our son’s name and we are going to return this good deed,” said Puharic.

She said that she started the non-profit paperwork in October and by the next year Michael’s Feat was a fully operating non-profit organization.

“I threw myself into it and turned that pain into action and it kinda kept me focused. We did small things at first. We delivered the first car seat to a family in the hospital. Through Monmouth Medical Center, where Michael was born, they allowed us a platform to go in and do an awareness campaign. We try to educate and at the same time help people with the tangible items. It grew fairly quickly,” said Puharic.

The mission of Michael’s Feat is to help families who are caring for or carrying seriously ill newborn in Monmouth County or Ocean County, said Puharic. She said that they have have liaisons in Monmouth Medical Center and Jersey Shore University Medical Center in both of their NICUs. She said that primarily they find the babies in need through the hospital liaisons and then they can step in and fill some of the gaps, like nursing services if needed, gas cards to commute to the hospital or food cards. She said that when families have to go to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, there are liaisons there as well, who find out what they need so gift cards can be sent. She said that if there is a need that a family has, they step in. They have also purchased big ticket items for the hospitals that any of the babies in the NICU can use to try to keep them from having to go to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“If the equipment could save one baby, then it was worth it,” said Puharic.

Alex Bean in the giraffe isolette, donated by Michael’s Feat. Photo courtesy of Tracy Bean.

Michael’s Feat Board Member Tracy Bean’s child Alex is one of the babies that have been helped over the years by the equipment purchased by Michael’s Feat at Jersey Shore Medical Center. Bean said that when her son was born there were a couple of times where he stopped breathing or his heart stopped or another catastrophic event when he was in the hospital. She said that she first heard of Michael’s Feat when he was put in the giraffe isolette that Michael’s Feat had donated, which is an incubator that controls the humidity inside and has the ability to remove the ceiling and immediately the sides will drop so newborn babies can be resuscitated without having to transfer them or take them out or handle them because they are fragile, said Bean. She said that one of the nurses had told her about the isolette donation and a few days later, Michael’s Feat had sent her a bag with toiletries, a disposable camera, a card and information about the organization.

“I just thought that they were an incredible organization because when your child is a baby, everyone prepares for this wonderful kind of exciting birth, where you come home and you prepare everything at the house and you run through all of these things in your head and yet when something like what happened to us happens, we are so unprepared for it. And then we had this organization here, by our side immediately knowing exactly what is going on and exactly how to be there for us and exactly what we needed before we even knew we needed it,” said Bean.

Bean said that she decided to become a board member because Michael’s Feat continued to help Alex after they had gotten home. Bean said that when her son needed braces for his legs she reached out to Michael’s Feat because her family could not afford them. She said that the braces were granted to them almost immediately after the application was sent. Bean said that the organization had remembered them through the hospital and they actually went to the company for the braces and paid for Alex’s equipment.

“I thought that was unbelievable. Then I was walking around the Seafood Festival in Belmar and Dana was behind the Michael’s Feat table and I didn’t really know who she was but she saw us and immediately knew who Alex was and who I was from pictures. She immediately picked us out and I remember that I was so excited to finally meet face to face the organization that helped us. It was just so nice and at the table I learned about different events that were going on and I started going to their events and get more involved. Then I was volunteering and it snowballed from there that I got on the Board of Directors,” said Bean.

For the board, Bean said that she goes to a lot of networking events and informs people about the organization and does a lot of outreach. She said that at the networking events, she meets with sponsors and she tells her story to spread the word. Everyone on the Board of Directors is a volunteer.

Puharic said that Michael’s Feat has also converted a family room in Monmouth Medical to look like a living room because the families spend so much time in the hospital so they are trying to give them a little piece of home and make it comfortable. The room has couches, magazines, books and a signature butterfly mural. She said that she hopes to make a similar room in Jersey Shore Medical Center, if given the space.

“People think that they are going to have a baby and be home in two days and when you are stuck in the hospital for months and your baby is hooked up to machines, your whole life turns upside down. Financially and emotionally, you are not the same person when you come out. You pray that child gets well. We like to be there for them along the way,” said Puharic.

Kendyl Rayne Colmyer who will receive the Heather Rose Kiss Courage Award with her family on July 19 at the picnic. Photo courtesy of Dana Puharic.

To raise money, Michael’s Feat hosts many fundraisers throughout the year. Their annual fundraisers include their largest event which is a Black Tie Gala in the spring, a wine tasting in October and a picnic in the summer to celebrate Michael’s birthday. The 14th Annual Picnic is being held Saturday, July 19.

“The idea is to celebrate his life and celebrate all the lives that he has been able to touch. A lot of the babies that we have been fortunate enough to help are now toddlers or in elementary school and they come back and they enjoy a day of fun. It is just a way to get together and celebrate the good work that the charity has done through the year and we honor a family every year,” said Puharic. This year, Kendyl Rayne Colmyer and her family will be honored at the picnic and will receive the Heather Rose Kiss Courage Award.

Bean said, “The picnic is good too because other families will come and just learn about us and they pretty much are amazed by a lot of the kids, that a lot of the kids were able to get help and are here and are happy and are running around. It’s amazing.”

Puharic said that from Michael’s Feat, a lot of the moms of the babies they help become great friends of hers and everyone involved in the organization is passionate about it. “I love interacting with the families and seeing the smiles on their faces. They call me when the baby is out of the hospital and they send Christmas cards. It is like they have become a part of my family,” said Puharic. She said that helping the families in her community and being able to see the toddlers thriving and being able to give back is very rewarding for her.

Bean said that the best part of volunteering for Michael’s Feat is, “When families come up to us and they are there with their little ones running around or holding their babies and they are home. Seeing the babies home and happy and having the parents come up to us, it’s amazing to me because I was there and I know what they did for me. Because we are starting out on a really bad foot when that happens but just knowing that other people are there, and they are so grateful and they are so nice and they are so appreciative of everything that Michael’s Feat does for them, they just do amazing things for these families. They really go out of their way to try to get it for them.”

Tracy Bean, Laura and Tim Gaedt and their triplets (Michael’s Feat family) and Dana Puharic at the Seafood Festival in Belmar. Photo courtesy of Dana Puharic.

Bean said even through the Puharics lost Michael, they are the first ones by any parent’s side who is suffering through a loss. “Here they lost their child but they are the first ones in the NICU, which to me is just a nightmare, but they are the first ones there, down in the trenches, helping absolutely everyone that they could possibly help. They are just the most amazing people that you could ever meet. They lived through this and relive this every single day and I can’t imagine what it takes for them to do it and yet they do it hands down without even a thought in their minds,” said Bean.

“No one wants their son to pass. It was the worst experience. There is nothing worse than losing a child but the positive that comes out of this is that in his [Michael's] name and memory we have been able to help all of these families. I see him as living with us every day. He is very much a part of our lives,” said Puharic.

Puharic’s husband Adam is also a founder of Michael’s Feat. The couple had three children after Michael that are all involved in Michael’s Feat as well. Puharic said that her children used to draw pictures of the family with a butterfly in the sky to represent Michael. The family keeps Michael’s memory alive every day at home and through the organization.

Anyone can volunteer for Michael’s Feat by visiting the website and filling out the volunteer page and donations can also be made on the same page. The upcoming Michael’s Feat 14th Annual Picnic on July 19 will be held at Monmouth Racetrack at 11:30 a.m. and there will be a barbecue buffet, T-shirts, activities for kids and a race program. The cost to attend is $35 for adults and $12 for children ages 4 to 12. Tickets can be purchased here.