It used to be that every little boy Phyllis Sudman would see in the park would remind her of Simon, the chubby-cheeked 3-month-old who never woke up from his nap one terrible afternoon 10 years ago.
She would imagine who he would have become. And it would hurt.
“I would think, Simon should be here. He should be in fourth grade,” says Phyllis, 43.
But after losing Simon on Jan. 24, 2005, Phyllis and her husband, Darren, 44, swiftly turned their grief to good.
“Our doctor told us, ‘Healthy babies don’t just die; you guys should go get your hearts checked,’ ” Darren recalls.
When they did, they learned that Phyllis had a congenital heart defect – one that Simon evidently inherited and that, undetected and untreated, proved fatal.
Successfully treated, Phyllis and her husband were surprised to learn that children are not regularly screened for heart health. And so they started doing it themselves, raising money among friends and Philadelphia-area businesses to launch their nonprofit, Simon’s Fund.
In the 10 years since, the Sudmans have raised more than $1 million and provided free cardiac screenings – in school gymnasiums, mostly – to nearly 11,000 kids. They have uncovered treatable – and, in some cases, potentially fatal – heart problems in about 100.
The Sudmans have also gotten laws enacted in six states – with bills pending in five more – that require coaches to bench student athletes with signs of possible Sudden Cardiac Arrest (fainting during exercise, extreme shortness of breath, dizziness) until they are cleared by a doctor.
Says Darren: “We can keep kids from dropping dead on the field.”
Now, Phyllis, who was named a 2014 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth National Honoree, more often sees her Simon in the faces of kids he’s saved – like Drew Harrington, 16, of Radnor, Pennsylvania.
Drew’s 2011 screening led to lifesaving corrective surgery that happened to occur on what would have been Simon’s seventh birthday. “I feel a connection to that baby boy,” Drew tells PEOPLE. “I could have died. I’m just really grateful.”
Says Phyllis, “My 3-month-old boy was alive for such a short time, but he’s had more of an impact than a person does in a full lifetime.”
Watch the Sudmans’ story – and those of other Women of Worth:
Rachel Jackson-Bramwell founded Project Compassion in Belleville, Illinois, when, at age 25, she saw homeless mothers and children sleeping in boxes along her commute to work in St. Louis. Nine years later, she’s served more than 40,000 men, women and children – “feeding, providing, educating,” as she puts it. “I was that girl who lost her mom at 19 and did not have a place to go. And because I know how broken I was … I know there’s nothing you’ve done that you can’t move past.”
As a tornado ripped through her Indiana home in 2012, Stephanie Decker, now 40, had a choice: let go of the young son and daughter she was shielding with her body, or let a falling beam sever her legs. She chose her children and, adjusting to life as a double amputee, has been choosing – helping – children ever since.
When Deborah Snyder retired from the Army after 22 years as a helicopter pilot, she was hardly done with her service to the nation. In 2011, Snyder, now 49, founded Operation Renewed Hope Foundation to tackle the problem of homelessness among military veterans. Her charity serves 100 veterans and their families every year. “One homeless veteran is one too many,” says Snyder.
For information on the Women of Worth, go to www.WomenofWorth.com
For more on Phyllis and Darren Sudman and their work with Simon’s Fund, pick up this week’s PEOPLE on newsstands Friday
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