NEW VENUE, SAME POWERFUL COMMITMENT Celebrating 20 years, March of Dimes breakfast continues to draw the support of many businesses in the region.

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The seeming contradiction between commercial and industrial real estate and the infants and children helped by the March of Dimes is purely superficial.

Underneath, the basic human incentive to take care of our babies drives both the March of Dimes organization and the 400-plus powerful people who attend the Commercial & Industrial Real Estate Awards Breakfast every year.

This year, the Oct. 18 breakfast is moving to a new venue: DeSales University in Center Valley. The event called for a larger setting with more seating and trained audiovisual assistants to handle a special presentation.

A big crowd is expected to pay its respects to this year’s winners and the past award winners who will be present to celebrate the event’s 20th anniversary.

Previous award winners include representatives of companies such as Jaindl Land Co., PPL Utilities Inc., Alvin H. Butz Inc., National Penn Bancshares, The Frederick Group, Liberty Property Trust, Ashley Development Corp. and Lehigh Valley Industrial Park.

According to Frank T. Smith, an original member of the breakfast committee, member of the March of Dimes’ Pennsylvania Northeast Division board of directors, the founders originally got together and fashioned a fundraiser modeled after what another group was doing in upstate New York.

“We’re a bunch of friendly competitors in the commercial real estate world, and we’re Type-A personalities,” said Smith, co-owner of NAI Summit, a commercial/industrial real estate firm in Allentown. “I figured we were all competitive enough to make this successful.”

This year also is the 75th anniversary of the March of Dimes itself, a milestone in the organization that was started by Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to fight polio, the disease that disabled him as a young man.

Money raised through the March of Dimes since its inception has gone into research. Once a vaccine for polio was found, the focus switched to preventing birth defects, continuing the premise of battling disabilities appearing in childhood. From birth defects, energies centered on taking care of pregnant mothers, since birth defects are linked with the medical, social and epidemiological circumstances of pregnancy.

Today, the thrust of the organization is premature birth, originating from the 30-year trend toward babies born before 39 weeks’ gestation. A turning point in saving lives came in the 1980s when T. Allen Merritt discovered surfactant therapy, a treatment that helps premature babies who suffer from respiratory distress syndrome.

Merritt, a physician, worked with the Food and Drug Administration to approve the therapy, and since it became widespread, infant deaths from RDS dropped by two-thirds.

A child that benefited directly from surfactant therapy is Catharine Aboulhouda of Allentown, who was born a micro-preemie 11 years ago and spent 113 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital. Weighing only 1 pounds, Catharine “could fit her whole hand inside the tip of my finger,” said her mother, Susan Drexinger Aboulhouda.

Drexinger Aboulhouda, a passionate supporter of the March of Dimes, along with husband Michael and son Michael, said that premature babies often are born with amniotic fluid remaining in their lungs, making it impossible to breathe.

“Surfactant therapy was developed years before through research funded by the March of Dimes,” Drexinger Aboulhouda said. “Catharine is doing great now. There are no outward signs that she was premature, except for some small IV scars on her arms.”

Attendees at the Commercial & Industrial Real Estate Awards Breakfast are familiar with Catharine: she served as March of Dimes National Ambassador in 2008. Every year, the event features a child who has been helped by the organization.

During the event, a “Person of the Year” is named – someone who has a “philanthropic mindset,” who has had a positive effect on the local commercial and industrial real estate world. Starting in 2002, the event also named a “Project of the Year” – something that has made a positive economic impact in the Lehigh Valley.

After tallying $17,000 in donations the first year, the bar was raised every year after to $83,000 today. Since its inception in 1994, the event has raised more than $1 million for the March of Dimes.

But it’s not the large contributions or the premier opportunity for networking among throngs of influential people that appears to leave the biggest impression on those who attend the Commercial & Industrial Real Estate Awards Breakfast. It’s the stories.

“We’ve toured the neonatal intensive care unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital, and gotten absolutely choked up,” said Bill Erdman, professional engineer and project manager at Keystone Consulting Engineers, with offices in Bethlehem, Wescosville and Kresgeville, and a member of this year’s breakfast committee. “When you see the circumstances that people deal with, it goes right to your heart and touches you in a deep way.”

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