Elizabeth Schwartz looks like every other mom, with a toddler at toe, organizing a community volleyball tournament. But those who know Schwartz know that while this tournament may be fun and games, the inspiration behind it was nothing short of harrowing.

Fear, hope and help

It wasn't the way Elizabeth Schwartz was hoping to meet her newborn son, but 14 weeks before his due date, little Philip came into the world much earlier than expected, and it was terrifying.

"He was a micro preemie. He was 1 pound, 7 ounces when he was born," said Schwartz. "It's kind of bleak when you see crash carts come in, and you have nurses banging on your baby."

Philip Schwartz
Philip Schwartz

The tiny little boy fought through with the help of staff from the St. Cloud NICU unit, but they were warned he might have issues like an abnormally shaped skull or heart defects from being born early. They said he might have a club foot and developmental delays. Schwartz said most premature babies have underdeveloped lungs, and they were really preparing for the worst.

Schwartz said the family was able to stay in Philip's room during his four-month stay at the NICU. She said it was nice to have some semblance to have some things that you are familiar with.

"But, we heard every alarm and we were in there every time the crash cart came in, which was often," Schwartz said. "The first few times it was terrifying. I'm almost sad to say, but you got used to it. You never got used to the thought of your baby dying in front of you, but you got used to the alarms. There were other families in the rooms around us and we got to know them pretty well and some of them I still keep up with."

"Every day is terrifying and every day is hopeful."

Schwartz and her family spent four months in the NICU in St. Cloud with Philip. Schwartz said the family support unit from the March of Dimes was amazing, as was the support from the hospital and community. Day by day, little Philip got bigger and stronger, and most of the complications they'd worried so much about never happened.

"He doesn't have a funny shaped head. He doesn't have a club foot, but he has a very minor glitch in his heart, but it's something that shouldn't affect him," Schwartz said. "He was on oxygen for six months, but he doesn't seem to have any delays or anything like that. The staff at the St. Cloud NICU was amazing."

And now, with a grateful heart, Schwartz is determined to pay it forward.

Meeting the need

Schwartz and her family want to find a way to give back and help other families who go through the trauma and stress of having premature babies. When they were going through it, the equipment that they had wasn't small enough for Philip - they were still doing trials of new nebulizer masks that were smaller in size. "It was a new thing, and this is the kind of thing that I'm hoping our funding will help with," said Schwartz. "I want to be able to give hope and peace of mind in those situations...I hope that we can help save lives and help give parents hope."

That funding Schwartz is hoping to provide is being raised through a volleyball tournament called Playin' for Preemies, an event held at Bertha-Hewitt High School. In its inaugural event last year, the tournament raised $1,500 and included 11 teams. Schwartz said she didn't know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised; The tournament drew participants from Park Rapids, Alexandria, Brainerd, along with Wadena and the surrounding communities. The support had her in tears during the awards ceremony.

"It was humbling. Hopefully, we are able to impact other people," she said, adding that money raised from the tournament goes towards the March of Dimes.

The tournament features a prize for the top three teams, but two of those teams donated the money back. Schwartz said she was so happy, knowing she was going to be able to help someone.

According to statistics, 1 in 10 babies are born premature - a surprisingly large number to Schwartz, who says she didn't know anything about the issue or how to help until going through it. She said there are very few organizations that are focused on premature babies and babies in the NICU and she hopes to make an impact.

To sign up

Registration for the volleyball tournament costs $150 per team and closes on March 5. The fee includes a T-shirt and is for people who are 16 and older. Teams usually consist of six to eight per team and must register as a team. The tournament features prizes for the best team name and theme, as well as prizes for tournament winners. Any players who were born preemies registering for the tournament are entered for a prize drawing. The tournament is on March 23 starting at 9 a.m. at Bertha-Hewitt High School. Registration forms are available on the Playin' For Preemies Facebook page. For more information, contact Schwartz at 218-371-6718.