By Vivian J. Malauulu
One of the hardest things in life is, without a doubt, dealing with the passing of one’s infant. The worst nightmare for all parents is for their children to precede them in death. Very few people can easily bounce back from such a tragedy, and even fewer can bounce back even stronger than they were before. Not so for San Pedro residents Nacio and Maria Jennings, who lost their four-month-old son Kalaea in September 2007 to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)– the leading cause of death in babies in the United States.
Each year, an estimated 4,500 infants between the ages of one month and one year succumb to SIDS– also known as Crib Death. Statistics are higher for boys than girls, and higher for those between the ages of four to six months. There is no cure for SIDS, and until the last couple of months, there was no known cause.
In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston linked low serotonin (a neurotransmitter hormone) levels in the brainstems of deceased babies as a very likely cause of SIDS. Researchers compared brainstems of babies who died of SIDS with brainstems of babies who died of other, known causes and discovered substantial differences in the serotonin levels. These compelling results send a very strong message to the pediatric community, especially to parents, that newborn testing of serotonin levels could potentially prevent SIDS.
“After more than 20 years of research, we may now be able to move forward in identifying babies at risk and developing preventive treatments to correct this serotonin deficiency,” said Dr. Hannah Kinney. Together with her Harvard-based team, their untiring efforts to unlock what was once thought to be the mystery of SIDS is closer to identifying its cause, and possibly its total prevention.
The Jennings Family, for the third year in a row, is collaborating with the nation’s leading nonprofit SIDS research organization, First Candle, to shed light on the puzzling cause of SIDS in the Harbor Area/South Bay communities. It was during the Christmas following Kalaea’s passing when Maria’s side of the family decided to turn their grief into something more meaningful. They researched organizations committed to SIDS research and found First Candle, whose sole purpose is to raise awareness of SIDS and to raise money to support the research for its prevention and cure. They decided to make a substantial cash donation in Kalaea’s name to First Candle.
“It felt so good to give,” said Maria, smiling. “It was the first time that I felt that way after my son died, and that was when I knew I wanted to do more for SIDS research.”
They went through the First Candle website and saw what other families were doing across the country to assist the SIDS cause. Instantly, they were inspired to take action. Since both Maria and Nacio are athletes, (she played soccer at El Camino College, and he played football there), naturally, they leaned toward some type of sporting event. They agreed that softball would allow male and female players of all ages and ability to play, and the idea of a co-ed softball tournament was born.
They shared their idea with family and friends and, within days, committees were formed, venues were booked, and a widespread marketing campaign was launched. The 1st Annual Memorial Kalaea Christopher Jennings Charity Event included a silent auction and slow-pitch softball tournament, and raised more than $53,000 for First Candle. The 2nd Annual Event raised more than $40,000. Both amounts are impressive, considering the sluggish economy of those years. The 3rd annual event will take place this weekend, and the goal is to raise $60,000. A combined total of more than 500 partygoers and more than 1,500 tournament guests suggest that this year’s event will be their biggest yet.
Together with countless relatives and friends, the Jennings Family created an annual tradition that has become a highly anticipated community event in honor of their beloved angel in heaven, Kalaea.
“This is our calling,” said Maria, through tears. “God allowed this to happen to our family so that we could help prevent it from happening to other families. We have been called to raise awareness of SIDS in our community, and we are doing it in the name of our son. This has made our family stronger than ever, we are more devoted to each other, and we are very driven to help find a cure for SIDS.” They are the first family in our local community to partner with First Candle, and the only family within their network to sponsor such a huge annual event. Families in Orange County and the San Fernando Valley have hosted smaller, less profitable events.
The Jenningses, who had two daughters, Tiare and Fa’atele, who were ages five and two, respectively, when Kalaea passed, have since welcomed another son into their family. Elai was born almost 18 months after Kalaea passed and has revitalized an already spirited family. All three children are thriving.
When asked about how the family is coping, both Maria and Nacio agree that things are not normal, but rather a “new” normal. “This is not just a new chapter– this is a whole new book. Our entire family is different, stronger, better,” they finish in unison.
“We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from our families and friends,” said Nacio. “They have really been there for us, and we could not have made it without them and the grace of God. It is very humbling to see so many people– strangers even– come together to help us, to help this cause. The party, the auction, the tournament– none of it would be possible without the people who share our grief and stand by us.” Nacio concluded by stating how proud he is of his wife and the hundreds of volunteers who make this event possible.
Their annual silent auction and softball tournament has a threefold purpose. Not only is it a way for the family to keep their baby’s memory alive, it is also a way to raise awareness of SIDS in the hope that other families are not affected by this devastating experience. This event also provides an opportunity for the community to raise funds for First Candle and SIDS research.
A kick-off party will be held on Friday, April 16 at the Gardena Elks Lodge, 1735 West 162nd St., in Gardena. Among the dancing and festivities will be a silent auction which includes 100-percent donated items such as: authentic, autographed Lakers gear; professional services from experts in various fields; tickets to concerts and sporting events; vacation home usage; gift cards; and lots more. The coed softball tournament will be Sunday, April 18 at Wilson Park, 2400 Jefferson St., in Torrance. Family-friendly activities, raffles, and vendors will be available against the backdrop of 16 teams playing competitive softball.
Joining the Jennings in their fundraising efforts are Long Beach residents
Manuel and Cynthia Gonzalez, who endured a devastating New Year’s this past holiday season when, on the morning of December 31, they awoke to find their six-month-old son Christian Richard dead in his crib. While both of them had heard of SIDS, neither thought it could happen to them.
“We wish we had known more about it,” Cynthia said. “We’ve learned so
much more since this happened to us, and now we are totally committed to
raising awareness of SIDS so that other families don’t have to experience infant loss.” The couple has found relief in New Hope Grief Support Community of Long Beach and will be volunteering at the Jennings event this weekend, where the two families will meet for the first time. The Gonzalezes also have a four-year-old son, Manuel, who often asks when his baby brother will return.
According to both families, there is no major SIDS awareness
activity/fundraiser in the Long Beach area, but they hope to change that in the future.
“The Jennings Family and their hundreds of supporters are phenomenal,” said Marian Sokol, president of First Candle. “There are no words to describe the incredible publicity this family has generated for SIDS awareness with their annual fundraiser.” According to Sokol, the silent auction/softball tournament ranks among the top five highest yielding charity fundraisers nationwide for First Candle in the past three years.
First Candle derives its name from the symbolic single candle on a child’s first birthday cake. The Jennings Family is committed to ensuring that every baby is alive to see the first candle on his/her birthday cake. Baby Elai recently celebrated his first birthday in a joyous gathering where his older brother Kalaea’s presence was felt.
For more information about the event, visit firstcandle.org/kcjmemorialevent, where you can view a video about the family and their efforts. For more information about SIDS, visit firstcandle.org.
By Vivian J. Malauulu