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Poster Child

Melanie Hoffman '91 and her son are touring the U.S. as ambassadors for the March of Dimes  Melanie Hoffman '91 and her son are touring the U.S. as ambassadors for the March of Dimes   When Joshua Hoffman was born in January 2003—only twenty-three weeks into his mother's pregnancy, a micropreemie—he weighed the equivalent of […]


Melanie Hoffman '91 and her son are touring the U.S. as ambassadors for the March of Dimes

Melanie Hoffman '91 and her son are touring the U.S. as ambassadors for the March of Dimes

Joshua Hoffman and his mother 

When Joshua Hoffman was born in January 2003—only twenty-three weeks into his mother's pregnancy, a micropreemie—he weighed the equivalent of six rolls of dimes. Doctors at Miami's Baptist Hospital considered Josh's underdeveloped organs and prepared his parents for a dismal future. It is unlikely, they said, that he will walk or talk. He may be blind and deaf. Brain damage is a distinct possibility. "It was a flurry of information all at once," recalls Melanie Bloom Hoffman '91. "And the doctors were all dead wrong."

Hoffman's hopes for her tiny son—all one pound, eleven ounces of him, attached to myriad tubes and wires in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and wearing a diaper three times his size—revolved around survival. When Josh was a week old, she and her husband, Lee, sang "Happy Birthday" to him. They weren't sure they had the luxury of waiting a year.

Certainly, they could never have imagined that seven years later their son—healthy, happy, and spirited—would walk into the Oval Office. But that's what he did in February, when the family visited the White House as ambassadors for the March of Dimes. The encounter began rather formally—with the handshakes that Josh and his younger brother had been practicing all day—but when they gave the President some Valentines they'd made for his daughters, Obama got down on one knee and hugged them. "It was so neat to see him step out of his presidential role for a moment," says Hoffman, "and just be a dad."

Since 1946, the March of Dimes Foundation has selected a so-called "poster child" to represent the organization. Over the years, that has evolved into a comprehensive National Ambassador Program featuring a child who was helped by March of Dimes-funded research, programs, or educational campaigns. Last August, Josh was selected as the national ambassador for 2010, meaning he has spent much of this year traveling the country with his tireless mother. They share their stories, advocate, rally sponsors and volunteers, and put a face on the foundation's mission to give every child a healthy start.

Each year, more than 500,000 babies are born premature (before thirty-seven weeks gestation); it is the leading cause of death among newborns. Hospitalization expenses due to prematurity cost the nation some $18 billion each year. Indeed, when the Hoffmans call Josh their "million-dollar baby," they are referring to both his beat-the-odds recovery and the approximate cost (in their case, covered by health insurance) of his treatments, tests, and 111-day stay in the NICU.

That medical care, developed with the aid of research grants from the March of Dimes—procedures like surfactant replacement therapy to combat respiratory distress—allowed Josh to survive and thrive. Indeed, his only residual impairment is blindness in his right eye. But Hoffman also believes that the nonprofit's efforts—whether it's educating doctors to recognize the signs of pre-term labor or encouraging pregnant women to take folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects—were instrumental in assuring that Josh's younger brother, Alex, was born healthy after a nearly full-term pregnancy. She credits the March of Dimes with "truly keeping both of my babies alive"—and once she had more time on her hands when Josh was in school, she opted to give back. "We want to help prevent others from going through what we went through," says Hoffman, a former TV producer who last year was named one of Lifetime Television's "Remarkable Women," along with the likes of Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver.

Her volunteer work (the family's year of service is unpaid) began with a speech at a small local fundraiser in Florida's Broward County. Afterward, the then-four-year-old Josh pulled a $20 bill from his pocket and told the crowd, "Here's my contribution from my piggy bank to the March of Dimes because they saved my life." It earned him a standing ovation. Mother and son were named local ambassadors, which evolved into state-level appearances and culminated in the family's current national position.

At home in Weston, Florida, Josh is a typical first-grader. But several times each month, he and his mom (and sometimes Alex and Lee, who works in the customized media division of Norwegian Cruise Lines) hit the road, appearing at events like fundraising launches to meet-and-greets at children's hospitals. For the month of March alone their schedule included stops in Houston, Providence, Hartford, Detroit, and Philadelphia; Melanie and Josh have flown on Continental, the program's official airline, so often that Josh can recite the flight attendants' instructions word-for-word.

The boy who didn't walk until age two has strolled the red carpet as a guest of honor at a March for Babies kickoff event. Although he didn't talk until he was three and a half, he now follows up his mother's standard speech (she majored in communication and Japanese in CALS) with a memorized three-minute talk of his own. Sometimes he even uses his once-underdeveloped lungs to belt out an audience-specific version of "It's a Small World" ("Thanks to all of you / at Wachovia / for raising / so much money…").

There have been a few highlights along the way: the standing ovation after being introduced on the floor of the Rhode Island Statehouse, the TV interviews, the trip to Hollywood for a premiere of the film Babies, meeting an "American Idol" contestant in New York City, the hockey pucks that Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood handed over with a wink and a wave, shaking hands with former NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo (who paid $1,100 at an auction for a football signed by Eli Manning, and promptly gave it to Josh). And, of course, that visit to the Oval Office.

As thrilling as the experience has been, it has been equally exhausting. But the family views it as more of an opportunity than an obligation. "In this one year, we want to give as much effort as it takes to move the needle, to increase funding," says Hoffman. "This is something we believe in from our hearts."

— Brad Herzog '90


Josh’s Story (6:22)