Founder, President, Executive Director
Nurses for Newborns Foundation
St. Louis Community College, Missouri
By Evelyn Kent
“I don’t know why I thought I was Super Woman,” Sharon Rohrbach said about her time at St. Louis Community College/Meramec.
She could have been talking about her life now. The founder, president, executive director, and until February, grant writer of Nurses for Newborns Foundation, Rohrbach spends a lot of time changing hats.
NFNF helps at-risk babies from low-income families. That means when Rohrbach began this venture in 1989, she got a lot more than she bargained for.
Rohrbach worked in a hospital nursery for 16 years after graduating from Meramec. Many health complications take a few days to manifest in newborns, and as insurance companies sharply curtailed the amount of time mothers and newborns spent in the hospital, many returned through the emergency room. Rorhbach was often called down to consult on cases. And because new mothers didn’t know what to look for in ill children, infant mortality increased. “I saw a lot of newborns die,” Sharon said, “And I saw a lot of heartbroken moms.”
To fill the knowledge gap, Rohrbach started a home nurse visiting service for new mothers and infants. “I didn’t want to see any more dead babies in the ER,” she said. Rohrbach soon realized that instead of the business niche she thought she would fill, she was providing a lifeline that poor mothers and their children were desperate for.
“After the first few visits she realized that these folks didn’t have beds,” said Clair DeVoto, development director for NFNF.
So in 1991 Rohrbach’s side business became a nonprofit, which today serves mothers in 29 Missouri counties and receives referrals from more than 160 agencies. NFNF acquires 400 clients a month with an average income of less than $500 a month. Families stay in the program until babies are two years old.
But it’s not just about shots and checkups. “You just can’t keep (babies) alive without food and some basic necessities,” Rohrbach said.
NFNF and its 35 nurses distribute about 1,100 pounds of food to client families a week. Much of that food is donated, and the foundation tries to give it out on an emergency basis. “With 400 plus new patients incoming a month, you pretty much have that many hungry families,” she said. So NFNF tries to get families hooked into established programs for food.
“We may be the only health care provider who goes into the home, so we want to do everything we can.” That everything includes providing toys, books, baby gates, vaccinations, primary care as opposed to emergency care and leads to community supports and how to access them. NFNF is also a child abuse and neglect program.
“I manage this programs like a jigsaw puzzle.”
From her days at Meramec, Rohrbach is used to juggling. “I thought the hardest thing I would ever do was get through college. … Honestly starting a nonprofit was nothing compared to the rigors of that program.”
It took her seven years to get through Meramec’s nursing program. “I was trying to work full time and go to school, be a Sunday school teacher and be a mom,” she said. Sometimes one of her other roles won out, and she would have to drop a class.
But she persevered with the support of her husband Ken, who “felt that education was our investment.” Instead of buying life insurance, they paid tuition. Ken said if anything every happened to him, she would have a career. The words proved to be prophetic as Ken died from cancer a few years ago.
And so she has. NFNF has expanded into Tennessee and there’s a possibility that it may go nationwide.
It certainly has received nationwide attention. In 2001 Rohrbach received Oprah’s Angel Network Use of Your Life Award and won the Women Who Inspire Us Award from Woman's Day Magazine.
Rohrbach’s busy, but she believes she’s living the life she was meant to live.