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Eleven years ago, Newport Beach resident and mom-to-be Dana Agamalian had never even heard of the term “preemie.” All she knew was that two little twin babies were growing inside of her, and she couldn’t wait to welcome them into the world.

Courtesy of Jessica Pratt
Courtesy of Jessica Pratt

A few months into the pregnancy, Dana realized that the wait to see her children wouldn’t be too long. In 2003, Grant and Alexa Agamalian arrived much earlier than expected, weighing just two pounds each.     The premature babies were rushed to the UC Irvine Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) a place where they would stay for the next three and a half months until they were stable enough to go home. Grant was in critical condition when he was born and had to undergo heart surgery when he was just five days old. However, thanks to the dedicated and skilled doctors and nurses in the NICU, Grant and Alexa battled through the odds and grew into two healthy young children.

Today, 11-year-old Grant sits before a group of UC Irvine students gathered for a meeting of the UCI Student Alumni Association.

“You guys are so special to me,” he says as he looks across a sea of faces twice his age. “I might not have been here right now if it weren’t for you guys.”

While these students did not directly save his life, their indirect efforts definitely made a difference. Every year since 2009, the UC Irvine Student Alumni Association has hosted a community dance marathon called Care-a-thon to raise money for the UC Irvine NICU. Since its inception, Care-a-thon has raised over $50,000. And every single penny goes to fund new technology and research to aid children just like Grant.

In 2013, Care-a-thon raised a little over $11,000 for the UC Irvine NICU. These funds went toward the purchase of a brain-cooling unit, which is a device that reduces the severity of brain damage for babies who are born with oxygen deprivation. This piece of equipment is extremely rare. The UCI NICU is the only neonatal transport service in Southern California that has the ability to begin temperature regulated active cooling as soon as the baby arrives to the referral center.

This year’s 6th annual Care-a-thon will take place on Thursday, Feb. 20, and members of the Student Alumni Association have set their sights high. The organizers hope that they can raise $25,000 to bring even more aid to the UCI NICU. At the time of publication, Care-a-thon has raised about $3,500, but there is still enough time to reach this goal and more.

On the night of the event, UC Irvine students and community members will gather in the Student Center’s Pacific Ballroom from 6 p.m. until midnight to dance for a cause. There will be live music, dance team performances, and the first few hundred entrants will receive free food. Additionally, participants will have the opportunity to enter a variety of different raffles to win prizes such as Oakley sunglasses, Disneyland tickets, hotel stays and more.

Instead of having each participant pay an entry fee of $25, the organizers wanted to stress the aspect of fundraising by having attendants reach out to others to cover the cost. If each participant asks five friends to donate $5 each, they are spreading awareness about the cause and raising money at the same time.

Attendants are encouraged to create an online donation profile page on the Care-a-thon website, where friends and family can make payments of any amount to help reach the participant’s fundraising goal.

Executive members of the Student Alumni Association have been working extensively to bring in sponsors for the event, spread awareness to the campus and outside community and raise funds for the NICU.

Although the preparation can sometimes be tiring and overwhelming, the board members keep tirelessly working on because they truly believe in the cause.

“I love being involved in something bigger than myself,” Ari Tablin, the president of SAA and a fourth“-year business economics major, said. The fact that the fundraiser directly benefits an institution that is so close geographically to UCI students is another factor that keeps the board members going.

“It’s nice to have a cause close to home,” Eliza Collison, vice president of programs/events of SAA and a fourth-year international studies major, said.

At the end of the day, Care-a-thon is about helping local babies get through what can be some of the toughest and most critical moments in their lives. From the delicate surgeries to the miniscule diaper changes, the doctors and nurses of the UCI NICU are there for every milestone and hurdle that comes along with a premature birth. They are the ones who monitor our county’s tiniest patients day and night, the ones who put their patients before their own needs or families. UCI students and community members have recognized these contributions and done their part to give back to this institution for several years. Let’s hope this is a trend that continues for many more years to come.

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