Of the Baker City Herald

Have you ever volunteered to walk in a fund raising benefit and wondered if just one person walking can really make a difference?

Meet Cierra Keck of Baker City. The lively nine-year-old weighed less than two pounds at her birth in 1992. Cierra faced numerous complications requiring a four and a half month stay in the hospitals neo-natal unit.

Cierras birth was a big surprise to her parents, Shannon and Robert. Shannon was only 24 weeks into her pregnancy and the two had just moved to Baker City from Pennsylvania to be near family. Robert had not been able to find work so they were visiting friends in Las Vegas.

While Shannon had been taking pre-natal vitamins, she had only one pre-natal doctors visit. Babies born prior to the completion of their first 37 weeks are considered premature.

As the couple entered Humana Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas, doctors shared with them the news that Cierras care could cost as much as $1 million. Robert and Shannon had no health insurance.

Things were pretty scary for the young couple. Shannon said the doctors were never able to decide why Cierra was born so early. Because of the babys extended hospital stay, the two found work at the local Target Store. The family remained in Las Vegas for two years before they were able to return to Baker City.

March of Dimes stepped in with assistance to the doctors and staff in their efforts to treat Cierra. Shannons family, Jim and Peggy Stella of Baker City, and her sister, Dawn Stella Bishop, now of Walla Walla, Wash., provided great support during the hospital stay and the months afterward.

March of Dimes pioneered the regionalized system of Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) at hospitals across the country and contributed start-up money and equipment to create many of them. It funds research aimed at improving the treatments that help sick newborns survive.

Today, Cierra is a second grade student at North Baker Elementary School, under the watchful eye of her teacher, Kelly Gaub. Shannon is very active in the parent teacher organization, volunteers at the school and is a stay-at-home mom to Cierra. Robert is working in the construction industry.

Cierra still faces many developmental challenges. She is very small for her age and weighs only 50-pounds. Because of the life-saving oxygen she was given at birth, Cierra is blind in her right eye and has only limited vision in the left. Her visual problems only seem to challenge her, not limit her. She sits up front in classes and her teacher allows her extra time to study her lessons if necessary.

Cierra receives special instruction in speech, math and reading and an occupational therapist helps her with her motor coordination.

She is very active in sports, loves to play soccer and is a member of Brownie Troop No. 408. Her cookie sales this year were phenomenal: 300 boxes.

This is Cierras second year to take part in the March of Dimes walking event which is scheduled for Saturday. The walk begins at Churchill Elementary, 3451 Broadway Ave., with check-in and registration at 8 a.m. and the four-mile walk starting at 8:30 a.m.

Last year, Cierra got a little help from her dads broad shoulders for the last few hundred yards of the walk but made it across the finish line on her own. She raised about $200 and her goal for 2001 is to raise about the same amount.

Its a very, very long walk, Cierra said. I was very tired last year. She said she has been training this spring by riding her mountain bike and walking with her mother after school and on weekends.

Shannon said March of Dimes was a big help to her family when they needed it. I think its wonderful that they help people, she said.

Anyone interested in raising pledges during the walk or taking part in the effort can still call Mary Jane Rose of the local March of Dimes office at 856-3149, or stop by the office of Bank of America, 1925 Washington Ave.

Cierra beat the odds. As one of more than 2.5 million babies who have been cared for in NICUs in the United States during the 1990s, Cierra benefited from the research and efforts of the March of Dimes.

That she will be able to walk the four-mile course Saturday is a miracle and something her parents didnt dare hope for when she was born. Its a bouncy, lively miracle with a big, reach-for-it-all grin named Cierra.