MARS HILL, Maine — When the first seed of Bobbi’s Build An Ear was sown in 2009, Jamie Guerrette felt it would follow the path of a typical flower. It would sprout up and blossom, but at a certain point, it would just stop growing.
But the organization has emerged as a vine, inching forward, stretching and wrapping others in its fold along the way. Now, an entity initially centered around one child has flourished into an organization that has since supported an estimated 75 families, and that number is growing every week.
“I really never thought it would happen this way,” Jamie Guerrette, the organization’s founder, said Saturday. “I thought that this would just trickle out after awhile, but that isn’t what has happened at all. It’s amazing.”
Jamie and her husband, Ryan, started Bobbi’s Build an Ear after their daughter Bobbi, now 5, was born with bilateral microtia with atresia, a condition that essentially means she was born without ears. In Bobbi’s case, one of her ears was not open and the other didn’t function. They were assured that doctors in California could form two functioning ears for Bobbi — but it would cost about $45,000 to create each one.
While the family had health insurance, it would not cover the full cost of the surgeries, and the hospital that was to conduct the surgeries does not bill insurance. That meant the family had to raise the money for the procedures up-front, and they also would need help to make multiple trips with extended stays at the California Ear Institute.
They created Bobbi’s Build an Ear and began holding fundraisers to secure the nearly $100,000 they would need. A little more than a week after the BDN published a story in December 2009 about the fundraising campaign, anonymous donors stepped forward through their accountant to offer to pay the entire cost of the surgeries.
Both procedures were successful, and Bobbi no longer has to wear the bone-anchored hearing aid that was surgically implanted when she was 3 months old around a brightly colored band on her head. With two ears, she not only can hear, she also can wear sunglasses, swim, sport earrings and tumble in gymnastics class without fear of damaging the hearing aid.
Determined to pay it forward, the family and supporters have steamed forward with the foundation, conducting two fundraisers a year and recently applying for 501c3 nonprofit status to make it easier for people to make donations. Jamie Guerrette said on Saturday that she is getting one or two requests a week for help from families with children with medical needs.
“We have helped families buy medical or adaptive equipment not covered by insurance, but the bulk of the money has gone toward helping families with travel costs to get medical care,” she said. “We’ve helped people from across the state, but the bulk of the families have been from Aroostook County. Many families who have children with special needs or specific medical conditions have to travel to Portland or Boston for care, and sometimes that requires an overnight stay. With the cost of gas and hotel rooms, it gets expensive.”
At this point, Bobbi’s Build an Ear holds a motorcycle fundraising ride each August and a photo day fundraiser in December. Guerrette said that once the foundation gets nonprofit status, she plans to host more fundraisers to help more families.
Jessica Robbins of Caribou said Saturday that she was thankful for the help she received from the organization. Robbins’ 8-year-old daughter Jada was born premature and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other medical conditions. The family received $500 from the group to purchase a special platform swing for their home.
“She is blind, and she really craves sensory input and stimulation, such as from motion and music,” said Robbins. “She loves to swing and we wanted to get that for her, but our insurance would not cover it. I heard of the organization through Jada’s caseworker, and she referred us to them. It took us about three weeks to get the swing, and she just loves it. She uses it several times a day.”
The growth of Bobbi’s Build an Ear adheres to one of the two conditions stipulated by the anonymous donors. They asked that when the family received any insurance reimbursement for the surgeries, 50 percent of that money would be used to create college accounts for their two children. The second condition was that the remaining insurance money go toward
helping other Maine children who need medical assistance.
“There are some things that we just haven’t been able to help with, such as plane tickets for travel to medical care out of state,” said Guerrette. “But the good thing is that we have been able to refer them to other people or organizations that can help.
Wendy Emery of Presque Isle also reached out to the organization for assistance to help her 17-year-old son, Blake. The family received funding for travel expenses and to purchase a therapy table for their home. Blake was born with severe brain damage and the family must travel to Bangor, Portland and Auburn for care.
“The table has been wonderful for the stretching that I have to do with him,” Emery said Saturday. “It’s much better than [stretching] in his bed. Our insurance would not cover it. We were so grateful for the assistance.”
Along with helping others, Guerrette said the organization has taught her children something as well.
“The spirit of giving it has instilled in my children has been amazing,” she said. “We are so thankful.”
To donate to Bobbi’s Build An Ear, make checks payable to the foundation and mail them to 77 Tompkins Road, Presque Isle 04769, c/o Robert Jackson.