Labor of Love: Schatzi Kassal Women of Susbstance

 After experiencing the realities of premature birth first hand, Kassal set out to make sure other mothers didn’t have to endure what she did.

When Schatzi Kassal gave birth to a premature baby in 1973, there were little to no resources for her child. At that time, neonatal intensive care units were unheard of and the preemies did not have access to the specialized attention and procedures that they so desperately needed.

“There were no ‘units,’ as we call them today,” Kassal said. “There was a little room in the hospital with seven tiny beds, and the mortality rate was huge, at 96 percent.”

That same year, Kassal convinced 250 of her friends to donate $1,000 to the neonatal intensive care unit at Holtz Children’s Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. Thus, Project: New Born came into fruition.

Today, the group has raised more than $10 million and boasts 2,500 members. Project: New Born has become so all-encompassing that even the NICU at Holtz Children’s Hospital bears its name–The Schatzi Kassal Project: New Born Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Funds raised with Project: New Born go toward research, equipment, salaries of key personnel and advocacy programs for premature and high-risk babies.

Since its inception, the charity has helped countless premature babies grow into fully developed, healthy and strong children. Project: New Born has become one of the most significant foundations in its arena, boasting a wide network of beneficiaries and earning the reputation of a fundraising force to be reckoned with.
“[In 1973,] I had a [premature] baby, and became acquainted with Dr. Robert Rowe, who was a pediatric surgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital,” Kassal said. Dr. Rowe would go on to become a major player in Project: New Born’s mission. “He had these tiny preemies, and [before then] I had never seen a baby that small. I don’t think I was even aware [of] premature birth until that moment.”

Kassal credits Dr. Rowe and his mission as fundamental to Project: New Born’s success, a mission that has been passed on to Dr. Eduardo Bancalari, Professor of Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology and Director of the Division of Newborn Medicine. At the helm of the Project: New Born NICU unit are Dr. Shahnaz Duara, Professor of Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology and Associate Director Dr. Charles Bauer, Professor of Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology.

After experiencing the realities of premature birth first hand, Kassal set out to make sure other mothers didn’t have to endure what she did.

“Today [the survival] has reversed,” Kassal said. “Now 96 percent of our [premature] babies grow up to be healthy and happy.”

While the original number of members was just seven people – Kassal and six of her friends – that number has since grown exponentially.

“We began with a group of friends of mine and we called ourselves the ‘babes,’” Kassal said. “We thought that was cute. There are still seven of us, and we’re spread out all over the country.”

Since the charity’s infancy, the number of Project: New Born devotees has continued to grow. The “babes” began reaching out to their families and friends to create awareness within their community.

“I was trying to raise money for Dr. Rowe and I said to my husband, ‘Maybe we can host a luncheon and ask some people to come?’” Kassal said. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you charge $250 a ticket, that way you don’t need very many people?’ That was his theory. He’s in business, and he had much more sense about what to do. And we raised $17,000
at the first luncheon. It was amazing because we never thought that we would [even] sell any tickets.”

And Project: New Born has only grown from there. Kassal, however, is quick to give credit where credit is due.

“There have been three Stanleys in my life,” Kassal said. “There was Stanley Marcus from Neiman Marcus who gave us our very first luncheon at Neiman Marcus at the Bal Harbour Shops; Stanley Whitman who has really taken Project: New Born under his wing and has helped us stay afloat with these incredible fashion shows; and the third Stanley is Stanley Kassal, my husband. He paid the bills, so he is vitally important. And [these men] are really how we have been able to build Project: New Born to where it is now.”

Kassal, along with her “babes,” her “Stanleys” and several other integral players in Project: New Born’s history have not only reversed a once outstanding mortality rate, but have also taken the initial seven hospital beds dedicated to premature infants and turned them into 175. Project: New Born has also recently refurbished one of three nurseries and began raising funds for the refurbishment of the remaining two.

And while Kassal remains active in the organization, the future of the charity has been passed down to what she calls “the young professionals of Project: New Born.”

“You come to a place when you need to turn this over to young people, to the next generation,” Kassal said. “And there has been an influx of new people.”

The next generation of Project: New Born has already taken Miami’s social scene by storm through grandiose festivities, attracting a new wave of interested parties and the city’s elite. These events include a fashion show with Lanvin at the Fontainebleau and an event at the Intercontinental where Oscar de la Renta held a fashion show.

“It is these fashion shows that the Bal Harbour Shops has been kind enough to give to us that has created our reputation in both the fashion and social worlds,” Kassal said.

And what a reputation it is. Project: New Born has hosted events alongside some of the top names in the fashion industry, including Chanel, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Oscar de la Renta, Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. Up next for Project: New Born is an April 14 wine tasting sponsored by the Hard Rock, Crown Wine & Spirits and Southern Wine & Spirits.

While the medical efforts of all those involved are integral to the charity’s mission, Kassal, her ‘babes’, her Stanleys and the support of their community are wholeheartedly behind every stride that Project: New Born makes.