When Jaime Nolan lost her premature baby, Grace Ann, she was determined not to let the meaning of her life end there.
Born at 27 weeks after Jaime’s sudden onset of severe preeclampsia, Grace only survived eight days while her mother fought for her life in the intensive care unit. When Grace went into cardiac arrest, Joe Nolan watched the doctor standing over his daughter’s incubator, performing chest compressions with his thumb.
Jaime discovered the Preeclampsia Foundation online and found a network of support that helped her work through her grief. Determined to take action and help prevent others from enduring such a painful loss, she found out the Foundation needed to develop an annual fundraiser.
Jaime gathered a local group of volunteers and chaired what she thought would be a one-time gala in Minneapolis. At the same time she was helping with the first national walk-a-thon, which was expected to become the Foundation’s annual fundraiser.
The Saving Grace gala was held in November 2005 and the moving event raised more than $57,000. The Nolans were asked if the Foundation could make the gala an annual event and they were honored that Saving Grace— A Night of Hope has since become the signature event.
Each year Saving Grace rotates among major cities in North America, increasing national awareness of the disorder and taking advantage of the unique relationships and synergy of each city, said Eleni Tsigas, Executive Director of the Preeclampsia Foundation. She served as chair of the 2008 gala in Washington, D.C., which was selected to coincide with the annual meeting of the World Congress of the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy (ISSHP) and to increase awareness among legislators.
“It connected us to an international agenda,” Tsigas said. “And it gave us an opportunity to reach out to Capitol Hill and begin advocacy and public policy efforts.”
With each gala, one constant is the telling of stories— powerful stories that put a face on preeclampsia through video stories accompanied by verses of “Amazing Grace.” The stories connect the guests: whether they are survivors and their families, researchers, members of the medical community or someone with no previous experience with the pregnancy disorder.
“The combination of all these people who care or are learning to care leads to a very inspiring evening,” Tsigas said.
When Jill Siegel coordinated the 2009 event in Chicago, she was worried about raising money in a shattered economy. There were gaps in sponsorships and donations. She asked survivors to write their stories and ask for donations of support so they could be included in a special commemorative program, an effort that netted nearly $7,500.
“It is so important we tell our stories,” said Siegel, director of communications for the Foundation. “Statistics may be hard to remember but you won’t forget the stories and if you remember them, you can share them with others and if you share them with others you can save lives. That’s one of the key roles Saving Grace plays.”
Sometimes, those stories are caught in unforgettable moments. Lauren Larsen was chairing the 2006 gala in San Francisco when her 5-year-old daughter, Clare, walked up to Tsigas with a month’s worth of her “giving money,” pressing four $1 bills into her hand.
“I thought I’d cry on the spot,” Larsen said.
When Larsen was asked to chair the gala, she didn’t feel prepared for the role but a bold move allowed her to double the previous year’s sponsorships. The motivational speaker gave talks for Johnson & Johnson and decided to e-mail the chairman and CEO, asking if he’d like to co-chair. The subject line read “Please say yes.” William Weldon agreed and his company became the lead sponsor, bringing in $265,000.
“The night just came together and it was just amazing, people laughing, people crying, people having their hearts touched,” she said.
Jaime Nolan coordinated the gala again in 2007 with co-chair Leslie Weeks. It was held in Boston, in a small room that forced an intimacy unusual among charity galas. The keynote address and Siegel’s personal story of survival were not delivered like rehearsed speeches but more like living room conversations.
“It felt as if they were personally connected with each person there,” Weeks said.
Maybe that’s what led to a moment that still gives Tsigas chills. During the auction there was a paddle drive and as it was nearing to a close, a man stood up and asked what the total was. It was quickly calculated at about $20,000. He challenged the guests to reach $30,000 and he would match it. Paddles were flying and the goal was reached within minutes.
“I was flying around the room, with tears in my eyes, trying to get bid numbers,” Tsigas recalled.
And Nolan remembers the tears too, from when she was standing at the podium, thinking about her daughter’s legacy, a legacy that has led to more than $800,000 to support the work of the Preeclampsia Foundation.
“While I know that the event is not about Grace herself, it was through her that the event was created and has been able to touch so many,” she said.