SHALERSVILLE — Brian and Vanessa Varga knew that their first son, Hunter, would end up in the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron Children’s Hospital. Doctors had identified a heart disorder in Vanessa’s 20-week ultrasound, and they were told that Hunter would have died a blue baby had it not been detected. Hunter arrived five weeks early, and 10 days after his birth at only 5 pounds, he underwent open heart surgery.
He was supposed to be there for six to eight weeks, but instead remained in the NICU for seven months.
During that time, the couple saw other young, unsuspecting families struggling to make sense of similar situations.
Some parents had no idea that they would wind up in the NICU or how long they would be there. On top of worrying about the health of their child, parents worried about paying for parking and gas for daily trips to the hospital, finding food in an unfamiliar city and keeping their jobs.
The Vargas also saw the joy that parents experienced when they could finally take their babies home — but they never got that experience with Hunter, who died on Nov. 24, 2010, after a series of complications from the surgery.
Within a year of Hunter's passing, Vanessa started the nonprofit Hunter’s Helping Hands, which has now raised about $38,000 to provide care packages filled with food, gift cards, baby books, adult coloring books, toiletries and a note for well over 1,000 families walking into the NICU at Akron Children’s Hospital. They have also donated laptops, bouncy chairs and mobiles that families can use during their stay, all items they learned firsthand were necessary or simply appreciated.
“When families see those notes and gifts from another family who’s been in that same position as them, it’s really impactful. She provides not only for the families, but for the babies. When you have a child in the NICU, you’re a parent but you can’t do much for them at that point, so reading to that child allows families to bond,” said Marybeth Fry, the NICU family care coordinator at Akron Children’s Hospital. “They took a tragedy and built it into a legacy.”
Though the nonprofit they run out of their Shalersville home was officially established in 2011, the Vargas’ dedication to helping families started when they were still in the hospital with Hunter.
“There was one family from southern Ohio, and I’ll never forget that family. The dad lost his job because of the commute and they were just thrown into this situation and they were so lost,” Brian said.
The Vargas took the young couple under their wing and showed them around downtown Akron. When the wife was alone at the hospital Monday through Friday without a car, Vanessa would drive her to the grocery store.
They met another family who had two other children at home. The wife arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m. before her husband went to work and then returned home at 6:30 a.m. to be with her two other children. As soon as her husband returned home, the entire family would go to the hospital.
“I felt for them, too, because we were fortunate that Hunter was our first. We didn’t have to pick and choose which kids we spent time with. We had horses at the time, so you still have to go home and feed them every day, you still need to mow your grass and you still have bills,” Vanessa said.
Sometimes, people would donate parking passes to offset the $4-a-day parking fees, but until the Vargas moved to the Ronald McDonald House, there was no organization offering aid.
“The biggest thing is when you’re there, you don’t want to ask for help for yourself because you feel like someone else needs it more than you do,” Vanessa said.
Not long after Hunter died, Vanessa’s cousin Amy Scopilliti suggested they hold a poker run to raise money for the hospital as a way to memorialize Hunter. It has now become an annual event and the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser of the year. They also accept donations of cash, gift cards and toiletries throughout the year at their website, www.huntershelpinghands.org, where families can also request assistance.
“It’s a celebration of Hunter,” Scopilliti said.
Saturday was the ninth annual poker run.
“We’re blessed. We have two healthy boys,” Brian Varga said. “It was an unfortunate time in our life, but we’ve made something good out of it and you count your blessings.”
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, email@example.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.