Vickie Cella of March of Dimes described the nonprofit's mission at its annual walkathon at Jones Beach on Sunday. Credit: Newsday / Vera Chinese

Nicole Pica went into labor at 32 weeks and delivered her 5-pound daughter in 2016, confirming her fears that her child would be born early just as she was.

Nicole, 34, and her daughter, Francesca, now a healthy 2 1/2-year-old, were among the thousands of people who walked at Jones Beach Sunday to raise awareness and funds for premature babies.

The annual March for Babies at Jones Beach is expected to again raise $500,000. Such events, nonprofit March of Dimes' largest annual fundraiser, are held simultaneously around the country on the last Sunday in April.

Pica, of West Islip, said she participates in the 3-mile walkathon every year in support of other mothers and their babies, and so one day no one will go through what she, Francesca and her husband, Alex, 34, did.

After her birth, Francesca spent a harrowing several weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit of Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, her mother recalled. Today, Francesca loves animals, playing doctor and grinning for the camera.

“She’s amazing, no problems at all,” said Pica, a licensed veterinary technician.

A premature birth is one that occurs three weeks or more before the baby’s due date. Each year about 20,000 babies are born prematurely in New York and 1,000 won’t survive to their first birthdays, according to the March of Dimes.

Suffolk County’s preterm birthrate was 9.9 percent in 2017, equal to the national average, and Nassau's was 9.6 percent that year, according to the March of Dimes. More than 12.2 percent of black babies are born prematurely in New York, while that number is 10.3 percent for American Indians, 9.1 percent for Hispanics, 8 percent for Asians and 7.8 percent for whites.

A child’s brain, lungs and organs develop in the final weeks of pregnancy and babies that survive preterm birth can have breathing issues, digestive problems and bleeding in their brains, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The 5,000 parents and friends and family [at Jones Beach], they know what these parents go through with a baby born too soon,” said Vickie Cella, senior development manager for the Greater New York Chapter of March of Dimes.

The money raised is used for research and other programs to prevent premature birth. PSEG Long Island, the event’s largest sponsor, has raised more than $500,000 for the effort since 2014 and had a team of hundreds of employees and family members attending, said Chris Hahn, PSEG Long Island director of external affairs.

Francesca was one of many young ones in attendance Sunday who were born prematurely but are now thriving.

Jacob Peralta was 2 pounds at birth but today is super-hero-loving 4-year-old who came to the walk with a group of friends and family wearing purple shirts that read “Team Jacob.”

“He thinks he’s Spiderman,” his mother Melida Peralta, 41, of Copiague, said.

Casey Montemarano, 42, said she knows the struggles of delivering a baby preterm both because she works as a NICU nurse at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola and because she delivered her daughter Lily, who weighed 1 pound 15 ounces at birth, at 30 weeks. Seven years later, Lily is a healthy second-grader set to take her first Holy Communion next week.

“It’s really patience and time,” said Montemarano of Manhasset, who raised about $3,500 for the event from pledges this year.

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