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Hall County woman volunteers with March of Dimes after youngest daughter's premature birth
Melissa Payne shares her family's story to help others
The Payne family of Kevin and Melissa and Allie Claire, 10, and Graceanne, 3. Melissa volunteers with the March of Dimes after her youngest daughter was born premature in September 2013.

How to volunteer

Where: March of Dimes, 1776 Peachtree St. NW, Suite 200S, Atlanta

More info: Contact Debbie Childress at 770-548-7988 or

Melissa Payne is celebrating Mother’s Day with her two daughters this year by having “mommy and me” portraits taken Saturday and enjoying a special lunch cooked by her husband Sunday.

But it wasn’t so long ago when it was hard for her family to make plans.

On Sept. 18, 2013, Melissa gave birth to her youngest daughter, Graceanne, 14 weeks early. Graceanne was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center for 97 days after her birth.

Having a baby born at just 26 weeks — the average is 40 weeks — was tough on Payne and her family, as they balanced work, school and the new baby. 

“You don’t want to be there, and you wouldn’t wish it for your worst enemy,” Payne said of the situation. “But you deal with it day by day and you find the strength ... But I know the positive things far outweigh everything we’ve been through.”

Because of her journey, Melissa has found comfort in helping other parents of premature babies. She volunteers with the March of Dimes.

The national nonprofit works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, infant mortality and premature birth, according to the organization’s website. The March of Dimes also helps mothers have full-term pregnancies and healthy babies.

“If something goes wrong, we offer information and comfort to families,” the website said. “We research the reasons why babies are born too soon or very sick and work on preventions.”

Based on its mission and efforts, Payne said she enjoys her work with March of Dimes.

“I still get very emotional,” she said. “Because even though we’re a little over three years past (Graceanne’s) journey in the NICU, sometimes hearing the other mothers tell their stories that are more raw and more current, it’s difficult to hear. But it does help me heal.”

Payne’s work with the organization involves fundraising and giving support and guidance to the ambassador family.

Each year, the March of Dimes chooses families with children who benefited from research, programs or educational campaigns aimed toward its mission to treat babies born with health problems. Families chosen take part in March of Dimes events and lead the annual March for Babies walk in April.

Hall County’s 2017 ambassador is Torie Robinson. In 2015, Graceanne was the ambassador.

Since then, Payne has helped other families with their roles as ambassadors share their stories.

March of Dimes Development Manager Debbie Childress said the nonprofit is grateful to Payne.

“Melissa is an awesome volunteer and her daughter was premature,” Childress said. “She is devoted to March of Dimes and making sure more babies are born healthy.”

Childress said one in 10 babies are born prematurely in the United States.

“Our mission couldn’t really be more urgent than what it is right now,” she said.

Part of that mission includes raising money for research and programs to give more babies a chance for a stronger start, Childress said. The Payne family is doing their fair share.

Each year on Graceanne’s birthday, the Paynes ask for donations instead of gifts for the toddler.

Graceanne’s older sister, Allie Claire, also has helped by promoting fundraisers for March of Dimes at her school.

“We’re instilling a good lesson in her to give back and donate time and money to a cause that saved Graceanne’s life with technology and resources,” Payne said.

Once the donations are collected, Payne and Graceanne take them to the NICU at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville for families in need.

“They could have something they needed and may not have known they needed it,” said Payne, who knows that experience first-hand.

She explained when the hospital staff decided it was time to give Graceanne a bottle, they asked if Payne had brought any with her. Then they asked if she brought a bottle brush.

She didn’t.

“When you’re there and you’re scurrying between work and seeing your baby and an incubator and having older children at home, plus typically you’re recovering from a C-section or a complicated delivery, you really don’t have time where you’re thinking about the little things until you need them,” Payne said.

Payne picked up bottles on her way home from the hospital and brought them to the NICU the next day.

She does not want others to experience that same situation or others like it, which is why she raises money and awareness through March of Dimes.

Payne, 39, knew about the March of Dimes before Graceanne’s birth, but never thought it would affect her.

“I did not anticipate having a premature child,” she said.

She explained Allie Claire, now 10, was carried to term and born without any complications. Even her pregnancy with Graceanne was normal. Payne said she had access to health care, took vitamins, ate well, exercised and did not have any health conditions indicating a premature baby.

Because she followed the rules and still had a premature birth, she felt compelled to reach out to other families going through similar experiences. In the future, Payne wants to start a NICU support group for current families.

“Being a preemie mom is a unique club that you don’t want to be a part of,” she said. “But at the same time, you’re honored to get to have a baby that lives and develops and you can share their miraculous story.”

She hopes Graceanne’s story can give hope to parents of other NICU babies. Payne said while the first two years of Graceanne’s life were spent living day to day and moment to moment, the family now has assumed a more normal lifestyle with the 3«-year-old. They are able to take trips and make plans easier now.

The family’s first trip after Graceanne was born was when she was 18 months old. The Paynes went to Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, Tenn. Friends purchased the trip for the family as Graceanne’s first birthday present.

“We were very short on funds for any getaways, so that was their gift to us,” Payne said.

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