March of Dimes will host event at Sacramento State to promote baby health


Musician Kirtland Stout plays piano in the Union Friday to help support and gather donations for March of Dimes. 

State Hornet Staff

The death of an infant can send a parent into life-long depression, but the passing of Tracey Schaal’s premature son in the early 1990s motivates and inspires her efforts at March of Dimes every day.

Suffering from a neural tube defect, the baby may have been saved had hospitals been aware of using folic acid as a deterrent, but by the time the discovery was made from March of Dime research, it was too late.

“It’s a very traumatic experience that no parent should have to go through,” Schaal said.

Originally created by President Franklin Roosevelt to address polio disease in 1938, March of Dimes is now a national nonprofit organization focused on preventing premature births through research, outreach to those affected, advocacy for healthier policies and education for as many people as possible.

Schaal, serving as the executive director for the Greater Capital Division in Sacramento, said the cause is one that can resonate with anybody because every person either is a parent, somebody who plans to be a parent or has some sort of special child in their life.

“Prematurity knows no bounds, Schaal said. “There are certain factors that raise the risk of a baby being born prematurely such as poor nutrition and lack of medical care, but it can happen to anyone.”

In the hopes of bringing its mission message to a wide culture of people, March for Dimes appointed Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez as the 2014 chair for its biggest annual fundraiser, March for Babies.

Schaal said partnering with a college campus is an unique opportunity that can be developed as a model for branches in other cities across the country.

“The one thing with this cause is that it does touch everyone at some point in their life,” Schaal said. “And raising the awareness with college students has been a really amazing thing. Typically when you think about having a child, you don’t even think about it happening to you.”

For 34-year-old senior communications studies major Sean Johnson, being the father of a premature baby never crossed his mind.  That is, until his pregnant wife was hit in a traffic accident.

Driving home from a lamaze class at Elizabeth City, N.C. in 2002, Johnson and his wife turned left at an intersection just as another vehicle was running a red light.

Johnson’s wife suffered internal bleeding from the resulting collision and was instantly helicoptered to Norfolk Naval Hospital for an emergency cesarean section. The baby was pronounced stillborn upon delivery but was miraculously revived by doctors.

“He had to fight,” Johnson. “Those first two months were so hard.”

Two weeks after the accident, the Johnsons were finally able to hold their son.

Twelve years later, the boy is healthy and learning how to longboard while his father leads a communication studies class of 60 people to raise funds and gather support for March of Babies.

“It’s great when young people can put aside everything else they are doing to focus on such a great campaign,” Johnson said.  

In California, 1 in 9 babies are born prematurely which amounts to 50,000 babies every year and yet for a lot of people, Schaal says the only baby that matters is the one that happens to be their own.

In an effort to reduce the amount of premature infant deaths, March for Dimes in Sacramento is working with legislators to identify areas where they can change how newborn babies are monitored.

Two years ago, the organization helped create a California legislative bill requiring a hospital to offer a test that can identify congenital heart disease. It passed as a law in 2013 and already the results are positive.

“One of the fun things for me was I was out meeting with a neonatal intensive care unit,” Schaal said. “One of the nurses came up to me and thanked me for March of Dimes championing that legislation because she had already had two babies that had been saved.”

Another focus for March of Dime has been stopping a recent trend of mothers selecting birth dates just for convenience. If parents wait for when the baby is supposed to be naturally delivered, it dramatically reduces the number of babies in need of intensive care after birth because the last four weeks in the womb are very important in terms of maturation, Schaal said.

The results from these organizational efforts has been greater than anticipated and are receiving national recognition. For the very first time, the state of California received an A grade from March of Dimes in 2013 for reducing the preterm birth rate to 9.6 percent.

“That was a goal we had set for ourselves in 2025,” Schaal said.

Valerie Turner, a senior nutrition major, has always had an extreme fondness for babies and with the help of some students, professors and Schaal, Turner founded the Sac State March for Babies Club. Serving as president, Turner has raised over $1,000 and brought more than 40 students to join her cause.

Turner is happy the club has come so far to help the March of Dimes cause but admits she initially never thought they would raise more than $100.

The next goal is to hit $2,500 primarily through their big fundraising dinner on April 25.

Turner said she cannot comprehend having a premature baby and would hate to be a mom in that situation.

“I don’t know anyone who opposes babies getting healthy,” Turner said. “We want every baby to have a healthy start.”

Schaal said the death of her first-born is something that drives her every single day.

“It was an absolutely heartbreaking experience, but it feels good to know that I’m meeting with families whose babies have survived who have benefited from the work we have done,” Schaal said. “So that keeps me going.”

The March for Babies event presented by Sutter Health is on April 26 and students can create a team, join an existing one or donate at