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Supporting The Families Of Micro-Preemies


Unbeknownst to Daniel Friend and Lorelee Smith, June 5th, 2016 became an unimaginable day for them both. Daughter, Rae Analyn Friend was born at 24 weeks, which classifies her as a micro preemie. A micro-preemie is a baby born weighing less than 1 pound, 12 ounces or before 26 weeks gestation.  “Unimaginable” is a word that encompasses an array of emotions experienced over the 115 days Rae spent in Loyola Hospital’s NICU. For the family, this meant one hundred and fifteen days of blood draws, blood tests, x-rays, EKGs, eye exams and blue light treatments. One hundred and fifteen days of ventilators, oscillators, feeding tubes and incubators. One hundred and fifteen days of monitoring her heart, lungs, brain and physical growth. One hundred and fifteen days of crib side nurses, hourly doctor visits, twice daily mom and dad visits, weekly therapists, extended family and friend visits.

From a few days leading up to Rae’s birth, through September 18th, the day they were able to take her home, a plethora of thoughts were had, feelings felt, and emotions experienced. Feelings of positivity, hopelessness, worry, angst, unquestionable love, disbelief, happiness, excitement, anger, and gratitude were just a few felt monthly, daily, and sometimes even hourly. Both Dan and Lorelee live day-to-day for the majority of Rae’s first few months of life.  The things they relied on were each other and knowledge gained from nurses, doctors and other families.

In 2018, The RaeStrong Foundation was created as a means to help provide support for individuals and families in similar situations. Dan and Lorelee are working to build an environment that fosters the incredible atmosphere that was given to them where any family with a micro-preemie can feel the hope and joy that comes with a miracle happening in front of you. Through the RaeStrong Foundation grants are awarded to individual families, hospital NICUs and preemie supporting organizations on a yearly basis.

Both Dan and Lorelee coach college volleyball at Lewis University, located in Romeoville IL. The roots of the RaeStrong Foundation began with their volleyball teams and have expanded since. One match from the women’s 2016 season schedule and one match from the men’s 2017 season schedule were highlighted as fundraising events. All admission proceeds, donations and preemie t-shirts sales were collected and then donated as a whole back to the Loyola NICU, which is the exact location that cared for Rae just a few months prior. Since the 2016/2017 school year, one match during each season has been dedicated to “preemies”.

Slowly, the Foundation has evolved outside of Lewis University’s gym and entered other venues across the country, beach volleyball tournaments, grass volleyball tournaments, poker tournaments and other fundraising engagements.

Dan and Lorelee are enjoying parenthood with their daughter Rae who is learning, growing, and thriving each day. Her kind, confident, spunky, imaginative, and bold personality is a daily reminder of how important this Foundation is to their hearts, and how important it can be to the lives of others.

The Rae Strong Foundation is looking to fundraise to help support families of micro preemies that are in need. Grants will be given out to those families, as well as non-for-profit organizations that assist in the needs of micro preemies and their families.


Who is Rae Strong?

Meet the team behind the Rae Strong Foundation.

Lorelee Smith grew up in Mishawaka, Indiana with two sisters and a brother. She married Daniel Friend in 2008 and they are the proud parents of Rae Friend. On May 29th 2016, Lorelee was admitted into the Loyola Hospital. Eight days later Rae Analyn Friend was born at the start of the 24 th week of gestation. This experience and the days, now years, following have compassionately touched the heart of Lorelee. There is a need for support, information and guidance throughout the life course of a premature child. Lorelee’s anticipation as a board member of the Rae Strong Foundation is to offer assistance to families that find themselves in a similar situation.


Dan Friend – “I’m the current Head Men’s volleyball Coach at Lewis University located in Romeoville, IL.  The thought of creating the Rae Strong Foundation was the next step in finding a way to help people who will and are going thru the same life impacting event it comes with having a micro preemie.  Rae shows me every day me what it truly mean to be strong and embrace life.  I’m excited we can find a way to that same thing for other people.”


Rudi Balich – “The only real experience I’ve had with micropreemies is my role in Rae’s life- Lorelee’s assistant and a friend of the family. Because of the turbulent times that I witnessed first-hand, when Dan asked me to be a part of this team, I was sold. I help with the social media side of the foundation- hoping to get our name out there. I am excited to help families that will go through things similar to what my friends went through. Rae is my best friend.”


Cheryl Petty – “Both of my sons played for Dan at Lewis University.  Even after graduation, we stayed in touch with the Lewis “volleyball family”.  When Dan told me he was starting this foundation, I offered my help with the accounting end of things if he needed it.  Obviously, he took me up on my offer.  And there is another connection…..my oldest son and Dan share a birthday, while my younger son shares his birthday with Rae.”


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Dan FioRito – “I’m a Senior Account Executive with GuidePoint Security. When I’m not helping large companies stay safe from constant Cyber Threats I’m trying to keep my 9 children safe and heading in the right direction! When my amazing wife Deborah was expecting our 9th child Thomas she wound up going into labor at 22 weeks & 0 days. The Doctors and nurses gave Thomas 1 in a Million chances to survive and if he did they said we would face many physical and mental disabilities. By the grace of God not only did Thomas survive but is perfectly healthy and recently celebrated his 3rd Birthday! We met Dan & Lorelee in the NICU where Rae and Thomas were both cared for. It’s an honor to serve on the Board of the Rae Strong Foundation and help parents of Micro-Preemies in need.”


Jake Walenga – “As a (now) former player of Dan Friend at Lewis, Rae has made more of an impact in my life than I ever could have imagined. From practice, to film in coach’s office, to team dinners she has always been around and been the comedic relief in the room when needed. It is a pleasure to help with this foundation in Rae’s name and give back to people in the community that may need it the most.”

Feel free to contact us with questions or intention to help!

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