Hundreds of families and business leaders will join together April 20 in the March of Dimes annual March for Babies — the nation’s oldest walk fundraiser honoring babies born healthy and those who need help to survive and thrive. The walk will take place at Lamar University and will start in a field between Brooks-Shivers Hall and the John Gray Center, 855 E. Florida Ave. in Beaumont. Registration begins at 9 a.m. with the 3-mile walk kicking off at 10 a.m. To register for the event, visit www.marchforbabies.org  or call (409) 242-6656.
“It’s like a big party,” said Donna Blanchette, division director at the March of Dimes Southeast Texas Division. “It’s a celebration for raising dollars. There will be children’s activities — face paintings, bounce houses and a bean bag toss — and different stage entertainment as well.”
The highlight of the event, however, is the walk itself, Blanchette said. Last year around 1,200 people turned out for the march, which raised $230,000.
“The goal last year was $215,000, so we exceeded last year,” she said. “This year the goal is $250,000.”
The money raised by the event helps support prenatal wellness programs, research grants, newborn intensive care unit (NICU) family support programs and advocacy efforts for stronger, healthier babies.
“The majority goes towards our local programs and education,” Blanchette said. “We give grants to organizations that work with moms and babies. We’ve given grants to St. Elizabeth and Baptist hospitals. They do the March of Dimes ‘Becoming a Mom’ prenatal classes.”
Becoming a Mom is a prenatal education program created for pregnant women. The information is designed to improve participants’ chances of having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. Classes serve as a source of social support for the women and allow them the opportunity to connect with other mothers in a similar situation, according to March of Dimes literature.
With classes such as these, the March of Dimes is helping to prepare women for motherhood, Blanchette said. The nonprofit is also stressing the importance of allowing babies to fully develop in the womb, which Blanchette said is vital.
“Our biggest push right now is preterm birth,” she said. “Anytime a baby is born early, their chances of survival are less or they’re going to experience some type of birth defect. We’re really pushing that doctors should not deliver a baby prior to 39 weeks unless it is absolutely necessary.”
According to the March of Dimes website, babies need 39 weeks to develop before birth for the following reasons:
• Important organs, like brain, lungs and liver, get the time they need to develop.
• The baby is less likely to have vision and hearing problems after birth.
• He or she has time to gain more weight in the womb. Babies born at a healthy weight have an easier time staying warm than babies born too small.
• Babies can suck and swallow and stay awake long enough to eat after their births. Babies born early sometimes can’t do these things.
Premature birth is the most urgent infant health problem in the U.S. today. It affects nearly half a million babies each year, including 1 of 8 in Southeast Texas. This past November, the March of Dimes issued its annual Premature Birth Report Card, giving the nation a C and Texas the grade of D.
“People have gotten to a point where they want to have a baby when it is convenient,” Blanchette said. “They schedule all these early C-sections. That’s one reason why the premature rate is so high. We have a lot of work to do. We’ve got to really push education.”
This education is made possible by the funds raised by the participants of the March for Babies walk, Blanchette said. Walk teams are formed by corporations and families.
“Family teams are the heart of our event,” the March of Dimes website states. “Made up of family members and friends, they walk to celebrate, honor or remember the little ones who have touched their lives. Everyone has their own story, but each shares the same goal — stronger, healthier babies.
“More than 20,000 companies big and small participate in March for Babies each year. From senior management to individual team members, everyone can feel good about helping babies.”
The HEB corporate team, which raised $15,448 at the 2012 march, will be participating again this year. Martha Araujo-Barrera, from HEB Public Affairs, said that the company supports March of Dimes not only because of its educational programs but also because the nonprofit is a big part of the lives of so many HEB employees.
“We’ve raised $2.38 million as a company for March of Dimes since 2005,” Araujo-Barrera said. “It’s important for us because we have a lot of partners, which are employees, who have needed March of Dimes or have family members who have been touched by premature birth and we want to help those partners out any way we can. By helping March of Dimes, we are helping our partners have a better life for their children. It touches all of our lives in one way or another.”
HEB is one of many sponsors for this year’s March for Babies. Others include the Previty Clinic, Wells Fargo, SETMA and SETX OBGYN.
The March of Dimes, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide and its premier event, March for Babies, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. For the latest resources and information, visit marchofdimes.com or nacersano.org.
Kevin King can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at kevin [at] theexaminer [dot] com.