For Cliff Preston, the most joyous time of the week is the time he spends comforting hospitalized newborns. Known as a baby cuddler, Cliff has volunteered for more than 26 years at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital. Infants need to form vital human connections from birth, and volunteers like Cliff help make this possible while their parents are away. The staff and patients in the neonatal intensive care unit has quickly become a second family to this Gainesville, Florida, native.
Cliff first learned about NICU volunteer programs in the fall of 1992 and, before long, he discovered similar opportunities at his local hospital. After going through an interview process and training sessions, Cliff became an official cuddler, and has spent every Thursday morning in the NICU ever since.
Infants in the NICU often face serious health issues and challenges in these early days of their life. It is common for nurses to have more than one patient they’re caring for, and it’s impossible for most parents to be with a child in need during all hours of the day. This is where cuddlers come in. Cliff helps fill these gaps of time when a child may be distressed, and in need of human connection and comfort.
“Every day I’m there is special,” said Cliff. “Every time I can get a baby to a place of peace, when they have been in pain or upset, means so much. Twenty-six years later, it never gets old.”
Cliff’s dedication has not gone unnoticed. A loyal NASCAR fan since he was a child, Cliff was a finalist for the NASCAR Foundation’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award, which honors fans who volunteer for children’s causes in their communities. Through this recognition, Cliff raised $25,000 for the NICU at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.
Cliff’s acknowledgement by the NASCAR Foundation led to numerous individuals reaching out to him looking for ways to get involved in similar programs at their local hospitals. “If other people are doing this because I’m doing this, then that’s huge,” said Cliff. He has also had the unique opportunity to meet some of infants he once cared for – now, all grown up.
Baby cuddling has taught him how to look outwards towards those in need. “For those three hours every Thursday morning, my universe gets very small and very large at the same moment,” Cliff said. “It’s hard to put into words how I feel about doing this. If they charged me to do this, I’d pay them.”
Not everyone can hold newborns, but Cliff inspires everyone around him to find something greater than themselves to become involved with. “Just look around you, seize the opportunities in front of you and find ways to serve others.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Cliff? Visit All For Good for local volunteer opportunities.