A portentous forecast of thunderstorms had John and Ashley Fontenot concerned but steeled to carry on anyways.
The couple from Houma were hosting the Super Cooper 5K in their hometown on Saturday morning, and the event was slated to be dark and stormy as late as Friday night. John said he went to bed praying but not sure about the weather, and he and Ashley agreed they were going to handle whatever Mother Nature threw at them.
“It’s not Super Cooper without a chance of thunderstorms – and a high chance of them. So, we seem like we’ve been doing this every year lately,” Ashley said.
The passing storm slowed down its pace overnight, though, and Saturday’s race was dry and under open skies. Hundreds were on hand at Pinocchio’s Pizza near the Broadmoor neighborhood to run the race, now in its 11th year. Joining the racers were dozens of volunteers from different organizations, including many workers from Terrebonne General Medical Center. Racers were offered drinks, pizza from Pinocchio’s, jambalaya served by Morgan City-based D.a.T. Sauce and smoothies made from TGMC’s smoothie bike.
The hospital’s strong presence there could be attributed to the cause the Super Cooper run raises money for. The 5K brings in cash for families at TGMC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where babies born premature or with serious ailments must stay until they are deemed healthy enough to leave. John said the race had already raised over $133,000 before this year, and he expected to earn between $9-10,000 for the cause this year. According to John, the target each year is about $8,000, which can cover an average number of NICU families for a year, with any laginappe going to extra gifts and operations for the charity.
The Fontenots started the race because of their own experience with their second son, Cooper. Shortly after Cooper’s birth in November 2005, doctors discovered he had transposition of the great arteries, a rare birth defect in which the two main arteries leaving the heart are reversed. According to the Mayo Clinic, the ailment creates a shortage of oxygen in blood flowing to the rest of the body and an infant can die if it goes untreated.
John said there were no signs of Cooper’s condition before the birth, and their shock was like that of many families who have to spend time in the NICU.
“You don’t ever expect it, which is quite a shock. There’s no classes you can take on what you can do when it happens; you just kind of have to go with the flow,” John said.
Doctors performed open-heart surgery on a nine-day old Cooper to re-route his arteries. Cooper was given a six-to-eight week recovery schedule in the NICU, with John and Ashley visiting their baby as much as they could. However, the pair also had to care for their 22-month-old, Remy, while tending to Cooper’s recovery. Through the support of family, friends and employers, the Fontenots were able to support Cooper in the NICU while making sure Remy was cared for.
That sense of support is what John and Ashley try to pay forward with the Cooper Life Fund. They use the money raised to purchase gift baskets of essentials like diapers, baby wipes, gas cards and other goods, as well as a personalized note from the Fontenots. John has highlighted the gas cards as particularly important, saying it could double the amount of time parents can spend with their children each week, face time he stressed as vital to recovery. According to John, the forecasts for most meetings with NICU families aren’t as dry as Saturday, as the tears usually come out. Ashley said their goal is to let those families know they aren’t alone in their most trying times, and the support is coming from people familiar with the experience.
“They’re just amazed people would think outside of the box and just think of someone that might be in that situation. It’s amazing, it’s shocking to them, usually,” Ashley said.
Given the original recovery schedule for Cooper, the Fontenots had prepared themselves to spend Christmas at TGMC. However, Cooper instead began recovering at a blistering pace, earning the nickname Super Cooper from the NICU nurses. John and Ashley left the hospital with their son a little over three weeks after the surgery, the projected recovery time halved and their Christmas celebrated in their home. Due to that time of the year’s special connection with their challenge, the Fontenots use some of the fund’s laginappe money to purchase a Christmas gift for a NICU family each year. This year they met a man who rides his bike both to work and to see his child in the unit. John and Ashley, noticing his bike was aging, got him a new pair of wheels to get to his baby.
“We know not everybody gets to go home for Christmas,” John said.
The Fontenots said the local run quickly established a well-known presence in the community after only one or two years. They thanked the numerous sponsors and volunteers who support the cause with their money, products and time, as well as the runners. Some of those on the course are dedicated runners who have made the Super Cooper a staple of their circuit while others are supporters who only hit the track for this particular run. John said the increasing popularity shows the area’s extension into the support network for the families facing some of their toughest times.
“Everybody’s out there doing it and having a good time, and it just makes me realize
we’re doing it for a reason: to help other people, whether we know it or not. I just can’t say enough about our community,” John said.