When Carrie Meghie and her husband, Terry, welcomed their son Jackson into the world, they had no idea that the next 10 months of his life – minus 48 hours – would be spent in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
Born with a chronic lung condition, Jackson passed away at just shy of 10 months old. Terry and Carrie did everything in their power to maximize their time with their son and spent every single day with him in the NICU at Lurie Children’s Hospital. The Meghie family was lucky in that they had the financial means to make the trek to, and park at, the hospital where Jackson spent the majority of his short life.
Many NICU parents live a far different reality, however, as more than half qualify for Medicaid assistance. With parking fees that range from $11 for 7 hours to $15 for 24 hours, costs can total more than $400 per month, and that’s without taking into account parents having to leave the parking structure to care for other children or ensure daily life can continue – and then having to pay the fees once again. This means visiting a gravely ill child can become prohibitively expensive for some families – and that’s a situation Carrie Meghie feels no parent should ever have to face.
“After Jackson passed, we wanted to honor his memory,” Carrie Meghie says. “Jackson was so happy because we were there every day. It helped maximize his joy. And we said, ‘We want others to have the same joyous experience.’ Everything else is secondary if you can’t be there.”
Thanks to Carrie Meghie’s connections at work, she and Terry were lucky enough to be gifted with two monthly parking passes to Lurie Children’s Hospital. The ability to come and go as they pleased without having to worry about paying for and validating parking was a godsend, Carrie Meghie says, and when Jackson passed, she and her husband realized that they wanted to share that gift with other families in the NICU ward.
The Meghies partnered with Lurie, using the hospital’s fundraising department to work out the logistics and jumped in with both feet.
“I took my grief and said, ‘How do I start a 501(c) (3) [charity]?’” Carrie Meghie says.
Thanks to their dedication, the Jackson Chance is on track to reach $1 million in donations since its inception. And every single NICU family at Lurie Children’s now has access to a parking pass.
Like it has for so many other families, that parking pass made all the difference for Vallerie and Juan Wonders, who live in Joliet – nearly 40 miles from Lurie Children’s Hospital. Their son, Seth, was born four months early on April 15 of last year. He stayed in the NICU for 170 days, a number that Wonders throws out without even having to think about it.
“We felt so helpless,” Vallerie says. “We couldn’t control anything. All we knew was that the doctors said that the best thing was to be there and that [Seth] could feel us and it would help him not just survive, but thrive.”
Without the parking pass from the Jackson Chance Foundation, Vallerie and Juan would have had to make the choice between visiting their son in the hospital and paying bills, as so many other families have had to do.
“Because we didn’t have to make that choice, it just made all the difference,” Juan says. “We would have had to spend $8,840 out of pocket just to pay for parking for those 170 days.”
With the average stay of a newborn in the ICU hovering around 28 days (according to the Jackson Chance website), but often stretching into months, this seemingly endless financial burden is just another brick in the wall of incredibly expensive neonatal care.
Happily, Seth is now 18 months old and absolutely “thriving,” according to his parents. “He beat all the odds,” Vallerie says.
“She was there every single day,” Juan says of Vallerie. “She knew every single thing about his care. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the parking pass; it would have been heartbreaking.”
The Wonders family has been eager to express their gratitude for the Jackson Chance Foundation. Juan has fundraised nearly $3,000 for the charity by doing two different races, and the couple presented their story at the foundation’s annual gala last year.
The benefit, which Carrie Meghie has dubbed “The Ping Pong Ball,” is a lighthearted take on the typical serious fundraiser. Now in its third year, The Ping Pong Ball came from a work partnership with Killerspin, a Ping-Pong equipment manufacturer.
Featuring a Ping Pong tournament, an auction and special appearances by Chicago Bears players, the Ping Pong Ball has previously raised over $200,000. This year, they have more than 45 sponsors and are shooting for $250,000 – enough to fund the transportation program for an entire year.
This year, the Jackson Chance Foundation is partnering with the Trotter Project to bring celebrity chefs, including Art Smith of Table Fifty-Two, Bill Kim of bellyQ fame and others, to the Ping Pong Ball VIP reception. Tickets for the VIP event include a meet-and-greet with the chefs, a tasting and a front-row seat to an exclusive “Battle of the Chefs” Ping Pong tournament.
Long term, Carrie Meghie wants to raise $500 million annually to expand the program to the adjacent Northwestern Prentice Hospital. Prentice has double the number of beds as compared to Lurie, and there’s a significant cost for parking, she says.
The Meghies had another son, Maxson, in November 2013. He too underwent a short stint in the Lurie Children’s NICU, but is now home and happy, just like Seth Wonders.
Though it’s been more than a year since Juan and Vallerie Wonders kept vigil by their son’s bed, they still reflect frequently on their gratitude for the Jackson Chance Foundation.
“No parent should have to make that choice to not see their child,” Vallerie says in a slightly choked voice, echoing Carrie Meghie.
“I think [the Meghies] just realized how amazing it was to take away just one burden,” she continues. “It’s something so small, but it feels huge.”
The second annual Ping Pong Ball will take place on Thursday, Oct. 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago. Click here to purchase tickets.
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