It was a typical Saturday morning at the Buffalo Zoo as a group of toddlers and their families made their way through the familiar sights and sounds around them.
What wasn't so typical was the bond that brought these families together for the second time in as many years.
It began during what many of the parents acknowledged was an extremely difficult time in their lives, the premature birth of their children. As they sat together day after day, some for as long as six months, watching over their tiny babies in the intensive care nursery at Children's Hospital, a special bond was forged.
"We all became friends in the hospital, because we needed support," Sharon Fabrizi of Amherst remembered as she watched her 22-month old son Christopher. "We promised to keep in touch afterwards, to see how the babies were doing. It's a real bonding."
And they did keep in touch, with phone calls, Christmas cards, and last year, their first reunion at the Fabrizi's home in Amherst.
About 11 families took part in the reunion this year, some coming to the zoo from as far away as Jamestown and Medina.
"It was a good support group," Peggy Fitkowski of Niagara Falls, Ont., agreed. "We were all in the preemie unit." Her son Joseph, who turned 2 in July, weighed less than 2 pounds at his birth. "We lived there for five months."
"Many of us experienced difficult times as the parents of premature newborns," Mark Moll, of Jamestown said. His son Mark Jr., now 2, weighed in at just 15 ounces when he was born in June of 1996. "As many of us experienced those times together, we have developed a special bond that will last a lifetime," Moll said.
Mark Jr., who was born at 26 weeks gestation, spent six months in the hospital before going home. Since that time, he has undergone several surgeries, and faces a few more.
"It's very surprising for how small he was, how good he's doing now," Moll said.
The only girl in the group, Courtney Aaron, is "doing excellent" her mother Tracey said. Born three months early, on her mom's birthday Oct. 6, 1996, she weighed in at a slightly more than 2 pounds.
"We didn't have much in the way of complications," Mrs. Aaron said. "She has done just great."
"The benefits of the ICN are obvious," said John Moscato, a spokesman for Children's who attended the reunion Saturday. "They're here today."
"The level of technology in the unit is unmatched in Western New York," he said.
Moscato said the intensive care nursery has been designated by Children's for a renovation and expansion. Following the announcement of a $2 million commitment by the Variety Club of Buffalo in February, a capital campaign was launched by the Children's Hospital Foundation to raise $4.5 million necessary to complete the project.
The hospital has reached the halfway point in that effort, Moscato said.