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Health: Paying It Forward With Pennies

By Stephanie Stahl

CAMDEN, N.J., (CBS) -- A New Jersey teen remains grateful and faithful to the hospital that cared for him so many years ago.

Melvin Sheppard's 11th annual visit to Cooper University Hospital in Camden has special meaning not only for him but also for the staff of the neonatal unit and the mothers there who watch over their premature babies.

Eighteen-year-old Mel wearing an honorary doctor's crisp white coat is back at Cooper University Hospital wheeling in a donation of pennies.

The load was so heavy that Mel had the pennies loaded on a wheelchair.

He was greeted by many of the people at the neonatal unit who took care of him when he was born nine weeks premature and weighing just two pounds and nine ounces.

Melvin was accompanied by his proud mother and father today.

"Eighteen years later, he's driving now," said Melvin Sheppard Senior.  "I just can't believe it."

His parents have reason to be proud.

Eleven years ago, Melvin started the tradition of collecting pennies to donate to the hospital.

The family calls the tradition, pennies for preemies.

"I felt that since they saved my life I should help them help other babies, that they have the same opportunity that I do right now," said Mel.

"It's maybe three or four hundred dollars," says Denise Sheppard who is Mel's mother. "I told Mel, it's always better to give than receive."

And the pennies they give are helping the babies in Cooper's neonatal unit.

Some of those infants who are being treated were born three and a half months premature according to Dr. Gary Stahl who is the head of the neonatal unit at Cooper University Hospital.

"She weighs a little bit more than a pound," said Dr. Stahl of one of the little babies currently in the unit.

"At 24 weeks every organ is immature,' Stahl explained. "The major long-term issue is if they have bleeding inside the brain."

Mel's pennies pay for comfort items like a music player that plays lullabies and also can mimmick a mother's heartbeat.

"Mel was a preemie and here he is getting ready to go to college," said nurse Joanne Fox. "It's a miracle, it's rewarding for us."

After 11 years of donating his pennies, Mel has contributed over $2,000.

"It's just a very humbling feeling that all things start small and then they grow," says the teen.

Mel graduates from high school this year and after college he hopes to become a mechanical engineer.

And he says he'll continue collecting pennies for the preemies at Cooper University Hospital.

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