Two tiny babies born seven weeks premature brought instant joy and delight to their parents — and also big expenses.

So when Peter Gregg and Cheyenne Cleveland, of Lewiston, received a gift basket filled with Visa cards, gas cards and other items from the Jackson’s Pay It Forward Foundation a few weeks ago, after babies Milo and Emerson were born, they were overwhelmed and filled with tears.

“We were surprised and really happy,” Gregg said. “It was a huge blessing for us just because we didn’t know how we were going to make it work … just with bills and having extra expenses. We had to use our savings (while the babies were in the hospital), so it was a cushion not to feel stressed out about money. Just to be a little more relaxed.”

The couple were the 202nd family the foundation has helped, and the donation they received brought the total distributed to families in need since its beginning in 2006 past the $1 million mark.

“I think that we never imagined it,” said Staci Baldwin of the monumental support the foundation has received since the death in May 2006 of her son, Jackson Baldwin, in whose name it was created.

“I think part of the reason it’s been such a huge valley success is that Scott (her husband) and I both grew up in the valley, and we both really believe in giving back to our community,” Baldwin said.

The money is all raised locally, and gifts are strictly set aside for needy families in the region. The baskets include gift cards for gas, lodging, other travel expenses and often an iPad to help families stay connected while one of their own is in the hospital.

“I think that helps as far as business,” Baldwin said. “Then it stays in our little communities so that everybody can put a face to the families that we’re helping. And those families end up paying it forward and supporting our auction. It’s just amazing. I don’t know if it would work in any place bigger than ours. I love the valley. We just live in an amazing place.”

Jackson Baldwin battled cancer for several years before dying one day before his 10th birthday. Before his death, Jackson had asked that, instead of giving him gifts for his birthday, donations be made to help an infant named Conner Frei, who needed a bone marrow transplant.

The Baldwins held Jackson’s birthday party as he’d requested, and by the end of the day more than $6,000 had been raised from the community to give Frei the assistance he needed.

Frei, now 14 and a freshman at Lewiston High School, was among the foundation volunteers who presented the gift basket to Gregg and Cleveland in September.

Baldwin said they expected just family and close friends to show up at that first birthday party in 2006.

“But after (Jackson) passed away it grew into a huge event, so we were able to raise about $6,000 (for Frei’s family) and it just kind of grew from there,” she said. “It just kind of took on a life of its own.”

The foundation began raising money through an auction that started out at the Red Lion Hotel but quickly outgrew those facilities. Since then, the auction, the main fundraiser for the foundation, has been held every other year at the Nez Perce County Fairgrounds.

Baldwin said the auction is planned for this coming January, but it is not yet known whether it will be an in-person event or virtual, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve got a great group of people that help us at our auction,” Baldwin said. “They’re a lot of our promotion. It really is so much word of mouth. We try to make the process as easy as possible (for families in need) because, having gone through it, you’re so overwhelmed and all you want to do is survive the day. You don’t want a family to have to fill out a bunch of paperwork, so we really try to make it an easy process for the family.”

Gregg said a family member and a family friend contacted the foundation on their behalf after Milo and Emerson were born at a Spokane hospital and needed to be in the neonatal intensive care unit for 29 days.

When the babies were born, Emerson weighed 3 pounds 9 ounces and Milo clocked in at 4 pounds 9 ounces.

Their lungs, brains, motor skills and feeding reflexes were underdeveloped, and the babies had to be fed through tubes in their noses for most of that time.

“We didn’t get to hold them for two or three days,” Gregg said. “I got to cut Emerson’s umbilical cord.”

Gregg and Cleveland stayed in Spokane throughout their babies’ hospitalization and since returning home have been nurturing them and watching their amazing growth.

Emerson now weighs about 8 pounds 10 ounces, and Milo is up to 11 pounds 6 ounces.

“They’ve both really thrived since we’ve been home,” he said. “The babies sleep quite a lot, maybe 20 hours a day, so we only have to wake up a couple of times in the night. We both just take one baby in the nighttime; that’s more helpful, and we still get in a good amount of sleep — about six hours.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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