By Konstantine Fekos
To put it simply, Meadville resident Richard Fickes’ goal is marching on.
Fickes has become a local staple for the March of Dimes, traveling around area towns and neighborhoods, collecting donations to aid in the research and prevention of premature births and related birth defects.
Performing service work to the national organization really hits home for Fickes, who was diagnosed with spina bifida as a child and received direct financial support from the organization for related medical expenses.
Although wheelchair-bound as an adult, Fickes is largely independent and has been recognized as a several-time Top Walker in the March for Babies, managing to raise around $4,000 annually for more than a decade.
Entering his 13th year of participation, Fickes has raised more than $60,000. The line of March of Dimes plaques on his mantle, proclaiming him a “Champion for Babies,” stand testament to his merit.
“I don’t think anyone would want to see any baby born anything but healthy,” Fickes said. “It’s really a combination of wanting to see babies born healthy and wanting to see my disability eradicated.”
“Fickes attends the Erie walk,” said Christine Bowen, community director for the Erie March of Dimes. “He does a tremendous job fundraising.”
His efforts don’t stop there. On the rare occasion he is unable to make it to Erie, he’ll hit a 6-mile trail in Woodcock for similar effect.
“I try and push the distance, not just raise the money; I do both,” said Fickes, expecting to make it to this year’s Erie march on April 28.
Fickes’ first foray into the actual march began in 2001 when members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2006, of which Fickes is a social member, invited him to join their walking team at the former Meadville walksite around Crawford County Fairgrounds. These days, Crawford County’s only March for Babies is April 20 at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville.
“I wasn’t aware we had a walksite until the VFW told me about it,” he said, mentioning the Meadville site’s eventual closure, which prompted his switch to Erie. “I certainly would like to see that come back.”
Determined to continue his efforts, Fickes began drafting lists of individuals and businesses to ask for donations each year. His 2013 list has about 105 entries.
“I just built up a territory between here and Conneaut Lake and a little bit of Saegertown,” he said. “I started with family and friends before moving on to local businesses. I prefer meeting face to face.”
Some contacts have been lost to business closings over the years, but Fickes still reports a 90 percent success rate with donation collections and expects to meet his self-appointed quota yet again.
As of early this week, he’s collected donations on 56 out of 57 requests.
“I have a lot of repetition, going to the same places year to year,” he said. “I usually receive something in terms of donations. I never ask for a specific amount.”
Fickes finds that patience and persistence pay off, having waited in doctor’s offices, car lots and a number of other places, all for the chance to present himself. When he encounters a block in his path to his annual goal, he merely tries his hand elsewhere, focusing on relationships he’s already forged.
“When people I know see me coming, they say ‘Is it that time of year again?’” Fickes laughed. “The reason for my high success rate is people know I’m committed to it. Their money is what finds cures for things.”
March of Dimes research indicates more than 17,660 Pennsylvania babies are born too soon ever year. More than 75 percent of funds raised through the March for Babies goes into research development.
“We now focus our efforts on funding all-important research on the problems that threaten our babies and works on preventing them, education and community programs that help moms have full-term pregnancies and healthy babies, and provide comfort and information to families when there are difficulties,” Bowen said.
Fickes has spoken with several poster families helped by the March of Dimes. They attend the marches and tell their stories. Many of them include children born prematurely who overcame late developments and gained motor skills through a variety of therapies.
“That’s when you really know you’re making a difference,” Fickes said. “I’m not sure what my final total will be, but I’ll do it every year until I can’t.”
You can march
The Erie March for Babies is April 28 at 1 p.m. at Presque Isle State Park, 3077 West Lake Road. Walking distance is approximately 6.2 miles. Registration begins at 11 a.m. The University of Pittsburgh at Titusville’s march is April 20 at 10 a.m. at 504 East Main St., Titusville. Walking distance is approximately 3 miles. Registration begins at 9. For information on how to participate in or support the March for Babies, call the March of Dimes, Erie chapter at (814) 833-4941.
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.