Tim Nies said he started crying when his twin daughters told him what they wanted for their 10th birthday this year.
They didn't want new toys or bikes or iPods, or even the quintessential young girls' dream of a pony.
In fact, they didn't want anything for themselves at all.
What Ashley and Lauren Nies wanted was to make a donation to the place where they spent the first five weeks of their lives -- the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland.
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"They shock you," their father said.
"I was really proud of them," said their mom, Joelle Nies.
Ashley and Lauren were born eight weeks premature and had to stay in the NICU until they were strong enough to go home.
And Ashley almost didn't make it home. One of her lungs collapsed when she was 2 days old, and Joelle said the doctor suggested they might want to call their pastor or priest.
"We were new to town. We didn't really know anybody," Joelle said. "We relied on the staff here for our support system."
But Ashley made it through, and now both girls are healthy 10-year-olds, she said.
The girls have grown up hearing the story of their births and their time at Kadlec, and that led them to decide a couple of weeks ago that they didn't want presents for themselves this year, but would rather give back to the NICU.
"We donated to the NICU because there was nothing else we really wanted to get for our birthday," Ashley said. "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for the NICU."
Between their parents and friends of the family who heard what the girls were planning, they each raised $300 to give to the Kadlec Foundation on Tuesday.
The money will go toward an $11.4 million expansion of the NICU that will take the unit from 3,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet, said Larry Christensen, the foundation's executive director.
The expansion will add 10 beds to the existing 17 for a total of 27, but also will add some private rooms so families can be together in a way the current, more cramped quarters doesn't allow, Christensen said.
The foundation is raising the money for the expansion from private sources, and so far has raised about 45 percent of the $11.4 million cost, he said. The girls' donation put the foundation $600 closer to its mark.
And even though they decided to forego presents, Ashley and Lauren didn't go home empty-handed. The nurse who cared for them as preemies sent a basket of frosted cookies as big as their heads to celebrate their birthday -- and their generosity.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; email@example.com