Erick’s Place nonprofit celebrates its ten-year anniversary.
Twenty-nine years ago on an autumn evening in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Sabrina Umstead Smith and her husband, Erick, were found unconscious as flames engulfed their third-floor apartment.
After being resuscitated and transferred to a local hospital, they were placed in hyperbaric oxygen chambers. Erick, despite two chamber treatments, succumbed to the effects of the fire a month later.
Grappling with her own viability, Smith had another life to defend, as doctors attempted to terminate her five-month-old fetus.
Encouraged by her mother, Smith decided to keep her child.
“I didn’t grieve, because I had a life that was growing inside of me,” Smith said. “I just had to push it to the side, because I had to be strong for my son.”
After reaching full gestation, Smith gave birth to “Little Erick” through a successful C-section in February 1989.
But, hours after the delivery, Erick showed signs of underdeveloped lungs, and received a tracheostomy at just 3-days-old. He was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the conditions directly associated to Smith’s lack of oxygen amid the fire.
Facing a damaged apartment and limited pediatric hospital facilities in New York, she relocated to North Philadelphia where she resided with her mother.
During this time, Smith balanced full-time work at a telecommunications company with the full-time care of a disabled child.
For three years, Little Erick underwent incessant medications, treatments and therapies, including at-home assistance and visits to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, eventually requiring a full-time facility at Voorhees Pediatrics. In July 1992, after a battle with pneumonia, Little Erick passed away at Cooper Hospital.
“During the time Little Erick was alive, there was no time for grief,” Smith said.
But, in the wake of her mother’s death in 2004, repressed years and tears boiled to a breaking point, and she surrendered to her sorrow.
At one of her final therapy sessions, Smith’s psychiatrist proposed an assignment that would eventually resound throughout South Jersey: What was Little Erick’s legacy?
Transforming double tragedies into a beacon of hope, Smith created a scholarship in Little Erick’s name. But, she knew her son’s legacy did not cease there. In 2007, she established Erick’s Place, a nonprofit organization to benefit parents of chronically ill children.
The recurring theme of the nonprofit’s programs stem from Smith’s own experience mothering Erick. In light of the affliction, Smith recognized her blessings, hoping to benefit families with small but significant advantages that transcend mere medicine.
The major contribution of Erick’s Place is the My PJs program. As of this year, the nonprofit has collected and donated 10,000 pajamas to pediatric hospitals around the region.
“When Erick was alive and in and out of the hospital, we took his stuff to him, PJs and cutesy outfits, and it made him feel at home,” Smith said. “Well, a lot of children don’t have that luxury option … some parents are not able to do that, so we fill the gap.”
The nonprofit’s Caregivers Count system has a similar focus, as Erick’s Place will donate gift cards to moms and dads who simply need a breather from the daily burdens of caring for a disabled child.
Smith also gives motivational speeches about forgiveness — a crucial component in her grieving process, as she went on to meet face-to-face with individuals responsible for the Brooklyn apartment fire and the demise of her family.
“Without (forgiveness), we can’t move forward. We’re stuck,” Smith said. “We’re human beings, we need each other and we can learn from this stuff.”
During her son’s life, Smith was blessed with a “village,” as she describes, supported with the help of her mother, stepfather, neighbors, in-laws and nurses at home.
She envisions such a village for every disabled child, cultivating her ultimate goal for Erick’s Place. One day, Smith hopes to build a state-of-the-art facility for up to 30 chronically ill children and their families. With a hospital in its epicenter, this community of care would encompass on-site housing and employment for parents and caregivers.
“Everytime I come across a sprawling space, (the vision) comes back to me,” Smith said. “There are people out here who are in alignment. I haven’t met them yet, but they’re coming. I feel it in my soul that they are coming.”
Smith is moving one step closer to this serendipitous synchronization with strangers. Marking the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary, Erick’s Place will hold its first Legacy Celebration on Oct. 28 at the Terrestria Clubhouse in Sicklerville from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The fundraiser will reflect on the nonprofit’s decade of accomplishments, including $10,000 raised in scholarships. The celebration will commemorate partners of the nonprofit, while hopefully seeking out new ones.
But chiefly, the event will honor a child, who despite spending numbered days on Earth, continues to touch the lives of thousands of people today.
“He never spoke a word,” Smith said. “But, his life has spoken volumes.”