By Nora Horvath
Lauren Steinitz, a Mahopac High School student, was looking for a cause to tackle for her Girl Scout Gold Award project when she was invited to take a tour of Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network. It was during her tour that she learned about a scrapbooking program run by the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department for parents with preemie and micro preemie babies in the Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (RNICU).
“When I saw the cart the program used it needed to be replaced,” recalls Steinitz, who graduated this past June and is now attending college with the intent on pursuing a neuroscience career. During her visit, RNICU staff also told her that despite the program’s popularity, they sometimes didn’t have enough supplies for the amount of families involved. It was then that Steinitz knew this program was what she needed to rehab, and she got to work fundraising for new supplies. The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest achievement that can be attained by a Girl Scout, and requires the Girl Scout to identify an issue within today’s world and complete a “Take Action” project that addresses the issue.
Back at school, Steinitz was gearing up to begin her senior internship program when she requested Jennifer Degl, a science teacher at Mahopac High School, as her mentor. Steinitz had never met Degl–it was only because of her interest in science that the two were connected. Shortly after they met, Steinitz learned that Degl had participated in the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital’s scrapbooking program in 2012, when Degl’s daughter was born a micro preemie at 23 weeks gestation and had to spend four months in the RNICU. This connection brought the two closer together, and Degl began to help Steinitz with her fundraising efforts.
“The weekly scrapbooking class given by Lauren Nittoli, one of the hospital’s certified Child Life specialists, and Gabrielle Bellettieri, the hospital’s certified art therapist, is more than a scrapbooking class. It is a way for NICU parents to come together and share their feelings,” says Degl. The program, started in 2009, encourages parents to gather together to document their children’s journey from birth, through their hospital stay, to the time they are healthy enough to go home, which for some families can be months later. “The scrapbooking program not only allows you to take home a beautiful collection of your baby’s milestones during their hospital stay, but also allows for an outlet during one of the most stressful times in your life.”
Although Degl emphasizes that Steinitz did all of her fundraising alone, Degl acted as a liaison to the hospital and scrapbooking program since she is in regular contact with them. Degl would also help make supply deliveries to the hospital.
Steinitz fundraised a number of ways, including holding a bake sale, sending letters to local businesses to ask for donations and reaching out to her peers at school for supplies and support. The generosity from the community surpassed her expectations, and ultimately she was able to raise more than $1,000 in cash for the project, along with donations of supplies. With the funds raised she purchased a new cart, empty scrapbooks, stickers and embellishments and other decorating tools. “I was surprised by how many people would walk by and throw in $20 and say ‘good luck,’ and not even take anything,” she said.
Parents involved in the program meet on Monday afternoons to scrapbook together. Not only does highlighting the little miracles help families who are exhausted by hospital trips remain hopeful, but the group activity also allows parents to meet and bond with others going through the same situation.
“I made two very close friends by attending the scrapbooking workshop. The three of us had micro preemies that were in the NICU for many months and we all bonded. Three years later, our friendships have only grown and our children are very close,” said Degl.
Throughout the project, Steinitz took every possible opportunity to sit in during the program and watch how her hard work was affecting the families around her. Steinitz observed as new parents entered the program, often timid and hesitant to be there, and how families that had been a part of the program for some time would encourage the others to join in.
“I could definitely see how the program was there as a support system between the parents who might not have met each other if the program didn’t exist,” said Steinitz. “And if the program couldn’t have run because they didn’t have enough supplies, they would have been alone.”
Steinitz hopes to continue fundraising for this program throughout her time in college. In addition, together Steinitz and Degl implemented a yearly “Teacher Dress Down Day,” where Mahopac High School teachers can donate money to the program in exchange for the opportunity to dress casually for a day. Lastly, Steinitz established a scrapbooking supplies drive through Mahopac High School’s “interact club,” intended to make sure the program remains well-stocked, even after she has moved on.
“I know that Lauren will be successful at whatever she does,” said Degl. “She currently plans to be a pediatric neurologist and I am confident that she will indeed be an excellent doctor who understands how to treat her patients and their families.”