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a recipe for healthy babies: 10th annual march of dimes signature chefs auction
by Audrey Hanes

When more than 350 guests, chefs and volunteers gather at Arkansas State University’s Centennial Hall later this month, they all do so with one goal in mind – to raise money to help March of Dimes fight birth defects, premature birth and infant loss. The nonprofit organization celebrates its 10th annual Signature Chefs Auction in Jonesboro this year as March of Dimes continues to work to give every baby a fighting chance.

March of Dimes

The March of Dimes (MOD) is a leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. For more than 75 years, moms and babies have benefited from MOD’s research, education, vaccines and breakthroughs. Each year, 380,000 babies across the United States are born too soon, and unfortunately, many of those are close to home; Arkansas recently received a “D” on the organization’s Prematurity Report Card due to a 10.8 percent prematurity rate.

Executive Director of Market Development for Northeast and Central Arkansas Rachel Guerin has been with MOD since 2013 and is passionate about all that the organization can do to help lower that prematurity rate, especially on a local level.
“The health of our moms and babies is imperative to our future,” said Guerin, an A-State graduate who covers her region out of Jonesboro. “Time and resources that are invested in this mission mean that more babies are born healthy, and to me, there is no greater cause.”

MOD as an organization has gone through many big changes as of late, including a restructure in 2016 and a new president, Stacey Stewart, earlier this year. Guerin says that under Stewart’s leadership, MOD has seen an exciting shift in the culture, technology and strength of the nonprofit.

“We are currently undergoing a full brand refresh to appeal to supporters of all kinds from all generations,” said Guerin. “Our event structure will remain intact with March for Babies being our largest fundraiser. However, our attention has shifted to major gifts, as well, launching the new Roosevelt Society as a major gifts campaign nationwide. Locally, we are focused on building our volunteer database. We need more people to say yes to committees, chair positions and the Market Board as we navigate the exciting changes of the foundation.”
Guerin says that while as a national organization MOD is focused on improving prematurity rates, the focus on improving birth outcomes is localized on a state level.

“The overarching strategy to reduce preterm birth is by implementing our eight evidence-based strategies for reducing preterm birth within hospitals and MCH (maternal child health)-serving agencies, as well as public awareness and literacy,” said Guerin.

Those eight strategies include reducing non-medically indicated (elective) deliveries, increasing use of progesterone for women with a history of prior preterm birth, reducing tobacco use among pregnant women, encouraging women to space pregnancies at least 18 months apart, expanding group prenatal care, increasing use of low-dose aspirin to prevent preeclampsia, advancing interventions for women diagnosed with a short cervix and reducing multiple births conceived through Assisted Reproductive Technology. Guerin says the issue of birth outcome equity among African American women is also a major focus of both national and state efforts.

“March of Dimes Arkansas specifically has an initiative that focuses on Northeast Arkansas titled ‘The Delta Initiative,” added Guerin. “This initiative will focus on reducing preterm birth by partnering with hospitals and other MCH organizations. March of Dimes Arkansas has facilitated provider education to labor and delivery staff at all three birthing hospitals, as well as Craighead County Local Health Unit and WIC unit in NEA. March of Dimes also partnered with St. Bernards Medical Center to provide MOD-branded materials for the new St. Bernards Women’s Clinic, as well as with the Arkansas Hospital Association to recognize two of the local birthing hospitals for their efforts in decreasing early elective deliveries. We will recognize the third hospital by the end of 2017.”

For more information, visit marchofdimes.org or find March of Dimes Arkansas on Facebook.

Signature Chefs Auction
The 2017 Signature Chefs Auction (SCA) marks MOD of Northeast Arkansas’ 10th annual culinary event. The evening of food, fun, auctions and more has come a long way in the past decade, and organizers hope this will be SCA’s most successful year yet.

Kade Holliday is chairing the 2017 SCA along with a team of dedicated volunteers that includes Amber Caldwell, Rachel Coulter, Sarah Crowley, Brad Dial, Japhanie Gray, Sarah Hamilton, Audrey Hanes, Hailey Knight, Alex Lorenzana and Amy Wills.

“I first got involved when my good friend, Sarah Hamilton, reached out to me about helping with this event last year,” said Holliday, an A-State graduate who is currently serving his third term as Craighead County Clerk. “I had previously expressed my interest in wanting to get involved with more things outside of politics, Arkansas State and the arts, and she invited me to serve on the committee as she was the chair then. After getting involved and hearing the stories from those who had been affected and how the March of Dimes helped them in one of their greatest times of need, I was all in.”

The 2017 SCA will take place at 6 p.m. on Oct. 26 at Arkansas State University’s Centennial Hall. In addition to live and silent auctions, live music by Dalanie Taylor and more, the 350 guests in attendance will enjoy unique, creative foods from many of the area’s top chefs. Participating in this year’s event are Lead Chef John Myers of The Parsonage 322, Hosting Chef Corey King of Sodexo at Arkansas State, Chef Bart Wheatley of St. Bernards Medical Center, Chef James Best of Skinny J’s and Eleanor’s Pizzeria, Gavin’s Downtown, Chef Sai Kattaviravong of Sai Thai and Japanese Steakhouse, Chef Bill Blakely of BA Burrito, Chef Rose Hankins of Twisted Foods, Chef Lindley Pipkins of Meals for Moms, Chef Michael Tolson of Chow at One Eighteen, Chef Tiziana Bowers and Chef Cordero Sims of Doe’s Eat Place Jonesboro and Chef John Miller of N’awlins Arkansas.

“I like what has gone on with the event in the past,” said Myers, who, along with his wife, Ramey, has volunteered to work with the other participating chefs. “This is a cause that not only helps locals, but is worldwide. When you sit and think about the children who aren’t with us today because they didn’t get to benefit from March of Dimes, it makes it that much more important that infants have every opportunity available to them. They’re our greatest asset; they’re the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Myers says guests can expect seasonal fare from The Parsonage 322, much of which he will try to source from local farms.
“I try to keep it Southern comfort food – something they can relate to,” he said. “That’s what we do here, too. I introduce certain elements they’d never think about trying otherwise.”

“I think what makes SCA so unique to Jonesboro is that we do not have any other event like it,” added Holliday. “We are truly blessed to have so many great charitable organizations in Northeast Arkansas that put on the best events in the state, but SCA is special. There is no other event in this area that features as many talented culinary individuals from the community and truly showcases their talent for all those that attend. I can’t think of another place where you can try food from 15 of the best chefs that the area has to offer, plus benefit an amazing cause all at the same time; it is truly a win-win.”

The chefs auction is presented by St. Bernards Healthcare & Medical Group in addition to many other generous businesses and individuals throughout Northeast Arkansas. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit signaturechefs.marchofdimes.org/jonesboroar or email rguerin@marchofdimes.org.

Honoring the Wills Family
The 10th annual SCA will honor Event Ambassador Murray Wills, along with his parents, Andy and Amy, for their personal experience with prematurity.

photo of the Wills Family by Melissa Donner

Back in 2012, Amy’s pregnancy appeared to be progressing normally until one day after lunch she wasn’t feeling well. She knew something was wrong, and a trip to the emergency room revealed that Amy’s blood pressure was 199/140. She was told she probably had HELLP syndrome and that she was going to be sent to Little Rock right away. HELLP stands for hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes (liver function) and low platelet count (helps blood clot) and is a very serious complication. Amy says she knew by the reactions of the doctors and nurses around her that their situation was dire.

A few short hours later after a very scary cesarean section that threatened Amy’s life, Murray was born. At just 33 weeks gestation, he weighed 4 pounds, 1 ounce. Because of the condition of both Amy and Murray, she was unable to see her newborn in the NICU for an entire week. Murray spent a total of 30 days in the NICU before Andy and Amy were able to take him home.

“We were so fortunate during our experience with Murray,” said Amy. “He was born seven weeks early, and his only setback was his size. At the time, we were so angry and scared and felt like we were going to be in the NICU forever. However, we made it out happy and unscathed. We became those crazy helicopter parents, and we’re just so grateful that we were able to do so. 

“During our NICU stay, we saw other families going through much more difficult struggles. Those families are kind of the driving force of our commitment to the March of Dimes. No mother spends her pregnancy preparing to stare at monitors all day or power through sleepless nights just to be awake when the neonatologist makes rounds. Everyone expects that happy birth story and all the dreamy pictures that follow. We celebrated things like gaining a single ounce and being able to finally wear a onesie; our story started out so very different than we had planned, but I can’t imagine it being any better than it is right now.”

Amy says that the family was introduced to the MOD’s Kristin Powell as soon as they arrived at UAMS and that she was tremendously helpful during their time there.

“Right away, Kristin took on every role we needed,” said Amy. “She helped us with paperwork, she explained all the medical jargon we were hearing for the first time and she was just always available to lend a helping hand.

“The March of Dimes also put us in contact with volunteers that had been in our shoes. One of my dearest friends now started as a message from a stranger; she knew Kristin and worked with the March of Dimes and knew what we were going through and just reached out. That meant the world to me. Just being able to tell someone a simple update, like that Murray had gained an ounce, and share that excitement that some people don’t understand – that was invaluable to me.”

Today, that 4-pound baby is now an energetic, healthy 4-year-old, and his parents say they spend their days deciding on what superhero cape to wear to dinner.

“Murray is such a happy and wild little boy now,” said Amy. “It’s funny to think back to how tiny he was and how scared we were. These days he thinks he’s so big and is always quick to share a story about whatever superhero stunt he’s pulled that day. He’s perfect.”

Guerin says that it was the family’s positive experience with MOD during Murray’s time in the NICU that made them want to get involved with the nonprofit organization. Amy has been involved with MOD since 2013; she is an advocate in Jonesboro and currently serves on the SCA event committee.

“Amy found our NICU Family Support program in UAMS incredibly useful and comforting during Murray’s 30 days there,” said Guerin. “After she realized what an impact the March of Dimes had made on the outcome of Murray’s birth and NICU stay, she wanted to give back to the organization. … Because of their story and her support, we wanted to honor the family at the Signature Chefs Auction. Amy hopes that sharing their story and gaining support for the March of Dimes will help other families avoid NICU stays by being born healthy.”

Prior to Murray’s birth, Amy says she and Andy had no idea what MOD did other than a general idea of the organization’s mission. After experiencing premature birth and how the MOD can impact families dealing with babies who are born too soon, they decided they wanted to use their experience to give back and help other families.

“Unfortunately, there has always been such a stigma with preterm birth – that it only happens to women who don’t take care of themselves or get decent prenatal care,” said Amy. “Then I found myself in the NICU. I had no idea what to expect or what we had done wrong. The March of Dimes stepped up immediately. We learned that we were not in this alone and that it was so much more common than we thought. They answered any and all questions we had and had resources readily available during our NICU stay. They continued to be a source of support long after Murray was discharged. The March of Dimes was there for us when we were going through one of the scariest times of our lives, and now it’s important to us to do the same for other families. We want to help the March of Dimes make the NICU a little less frightening for new parents.”

Amy is quick to point out that while she and her family first interacted with MOD because of Murray’s early birth, the organization is one that steps up to be an advocate for all babies. She appreciates that MOD is constantly doing research and working behind the scenes so that families can experience those happily ever after moments at the hospital with healthy, full-term babies.

“I appreciate the March of Dimes because I felt their kindness firsthand; however, others should appreciate their work because they’ve never had to see it,” said Amy. “A normal birth experience is the best proof of the hard work and commitment to change that the March of Dimes has to offer. Every time someone supports the March of Dimes by either making a donation or volunteering their time, they help the organization move toward their goal of ending preterm birth. Who wouldn’t want to see that goal achieved?”

in the kitchen with the parsonage 322's chef john myers
Story by Audrey Hanes, photo by Amy Long

When John and Ramey Myers moved to Jonesboro from Marion in January of 2016 to open The Parsonage 322 on Main Street, the couple immersed themselves in the downtown community, quickly making their restaurant a favorite stop for diners looking for a familiar, hometown feeling and creative farm-to-table fare.

John’s start in the culinary world was as unique and colorful as his cuisine. After working at several different restaurants in the St. Louis area, he decided the next step was more formal training.

“I was working at Tony’s at the grill, and Vince Bommarito Jr. told me not to go to school and told me to do an apprenticeship instead,” said John. “St. Louis is a food community. I checked around, and University Club had a great five year apprenticeship. I had a tough Irish chef there – he was very physical and hands-on.”

John still has battle scars from his apprenticeship, but the knowledge and experience he gained there helped shape him into the chef he is today. He was one of only two of the original 20 participants to complete the program.

Ramey says that John’s food is so special because he truly puts his heart into everything he cooks. Although he usually gets to The Parsonage around 6:30 or 7 a.m. for prep work, he says he often starts his day around 4 a.m. because he mentally does inventory of what he has to work with that day and what specials he can have based on those ingredients.

“The prep work – you have to have it – it’s the meat and potatoes, but the satisfaction is putting the finished product up in the window,” said John. “That final product is a wow feeling.

“We work with several area farmers, so there is always something different coming in. That’s the fun part of it; it’s like Christmas when I get to work with something new that I haven’t cooked with before. … So many people think organic is supposed to be beautiful, like pristine tomatoes at Whole Foods. Really, it might not grow perfectly and might not be so pretty because chemicals can’t be used.”

Favorite thing to cook? I’m the king of leftovers. Whatever is in the fridge – I like to use whatever is left and do my own Iron Chef thing. I also really love soups. It’s single-stage cooking; it’s all in one pot, and you have all these dry ingredients and add chicken stock and bam, you have a meal that will last a long time.

Favorite ingredient to cook with? I like a lot of the Indian spices, like the curries and the tumerics.

Key piece of cooking advice? Don’t overthink it. Some of the best meals are the simplest. A grilled cheese can be a work of art depending on the cheese you use. It’s like I like to say, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Greatest cooking influence? My grandmother, Pollymom. And Julia Child – she was a judge in one of my competitions.

Most popular thing on the menu? The club or the reuben – it’s a toss-up.

Favorite famous chef? Chef Jacques Pepin, a French chef who had a TV show with his daughter for a while.

Favorite thing about being on Main Street? The familiarity. You get a better sense of neighborhood when you’re in the middle of it here. We get in attorneys and City Council members, and you get a whole idea of what’s going on in Jonesboro.

Favorite thing about working with your wife? None of this would happen without Ramey. She is the foundation for the restaurant, and she really makes the connection with our diners. When people come in, she knows who they are and can ask them how their child is doing. You don’t get that everywhere.

The Parsonage 322, located at 322 S. Main Street, is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday for dinner service from 5-9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 520-6333 or find The Parsonage 322 on Facebook.