DeeJay Hellrung: Champion for Children

2012 Woman of Distinction

DeeJay Hellrung is one of Florida’s leading advocates on issues relating to maternal and child health, child welfare and child abuse. Feisty, funny and savvy, Hellrung’s singular focus all her adult life has been the betterment of children’s lives, which fits in nicely with her marriage to longtime Gainesville pediatrician John Hellrung.

“We’ve both devoted our entire lives to children,” she says.

The two met in the pediatric ward at Tampa General Hospital 36 years ago, when John was a resident and DeeJay was working her way through school as a pediatric nursing assistant. DeeJay earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of South Florida, and a master’s in Family and Child Development at Kansas State University, while working at the Geary Community Hospital in Junction City, Ks. 

“I concentrated on the dynamics of child abuse and death and dying, and I came out of that program as a family therapist,” she says.

DeeJay worked for six years in a clinical capacity for an infant development team performing research at Shands’ Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Her role was to provide the family support component of developmental intervention protocols for premature infants.

“We knew that premature babies were at a higher risk for child abuse, and we worked to strengthen families and teach couples how to support each other,” she explains.  

Launching her advocacy career

Soon after the Hellrungs moved to Gainesville in 1977, DeeJay started volunteering with the Alachua County Council on Child Abuse. And that is where she met Carole Zegel.

“Carole proposed me to the Junior League, and that was the training ground that gave me the skills to become an effective child advocate,” DeeJay says.

DeeJay served as state chair of the Junior League’s Child Welfare Task Force, and volunteered with the Children’s Home Society, Planned Parenthood, and the Guardian ad Litem program. She’s given 20 years of volunteering to the March of Dimes (MOD), serving on both the state and national levels, including State Public Affairs Chair for the Florida Chapter and chairing the Southern Regional Public Affairs Committee. She’s lobbied on behalf of children in Tallahassee and Congress.

DeeJay also represented the MOD on a state newborn screening advisory committee charged with the expansion of Florida’s newborn screening program. Under its direction, Florida changed from testing for five treatable metabolic conditions in newborns to testing for 32 — literally saving thousands of children’s lives.

In 2009, the Florida MOD awarded DeeJay the prestigious Lawton Chiles Public Affairs Award for providing exemplary service in advocating for mothers and babies.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” she says.

Today, she serves on a MOD task force examining the issue of substance-addicted newborns, a growing problem due to prescription drug abuse during pregnancy.

Betsy Trent, executive director of the March of Dimes North Central Florida Division, said the March of Dimes focuses on a triangular mission: programs that improve maternal health issues, communications and raising public awareness, and fundraising. In DeeJay, she said, they have a volunteer who excels at all three.  

“She’s been so supportive and so balanced in all areas of the March of Dimes mission,” Trent say. “She has truly made an impact in the legislature and in driving issues dealing with medical research and medical practices that can benefit babies. In her own personal fundraising efforts, she’s always a top walker and giver [this year’s March for Babies is March 24]. And then in communications, she is that spokesperson we look to when the media calls and says, ‘can someone talk on behalf of the March of Dimes?’ We are just so grateful, not only here locally, but in the state and national arena. She’s a great person to work with, to be around, and to have as the face of the March of Dimes in the community.”

Community involvement

In addition to her continuing work with the MOD, DeeJay also serves on the board for the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council, and on the steering committee for their Women Who Make A Difference fundraiser. She was named to that honor in 1997.

“DeeJay’s very animated and a great presenter,” said Sandra Snyder, fund development manager. “She livens up our meetings and adds a little spark. She’s so well connected in the community. What a lot of people don’t know is that she plays a beautiful piano. She couldn’t just stop at being the accompanist for our daughter and her son when they were in the GHS band. She has accompanied many others.”

DeeJay was also awarded the Heart of the Girls Place award for her work with the board at Girls Place (formerly the Girls Club) since 1993. She was a member of the 2003 committee that conceived the popular fundraiser, Hats, Hearts & Handbags (coming up this year on March 9; read more).

“She has played a major role in the success of that event for the past eight years,” said Executive Director Renae Clements. “She is a perfect role model for our girls. She’s served on our operations and foundation board for a number of years, and has been a past president. She is so enthusiastic. She motivates people with her passion for children and her zest for life. She’s a great role model. Everyone wants to be around her. She radiates joy and exuberance. She’s always the first to volunteer to host things at her house, and she does all the cooking.”

DeeJay’s family

DeeJay and John are the parents of Nick, who holds an MBA and is a financial manager for Johnson & Johnson in Jacksonville, and Alyssa, “the other doctor Hellrung,” who holds a Ph.D. in women’s studies and directs the flying trapeze program at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Seattle. Both are expecting their first child.

“My daughter’s partner is expecting a girl on April 14, and Nick’s boy is due May 5,” DeeJay says. “And now it begins! I am so ready to be a grandmother!”

DeeJay is passionate about working for equal rights for LGBT persons via Equality Florida (EF), a statewide organization. Florida recently allowed gay parents to adopt children, not just serve as foster parents, in part due to EF’s advocacy. 

The other cause dear to her heart is her work with the Sebastian Ferrero Foundation.

“The goal is to establish a dedicated pediatric hospital in Gainesville,” explained DeeJay. “We recently celebrated the establishment of a separate pediatric emergency room at Shands, thanks to a generous donation from the Ferrero Foundation.”

In her 30s, DeeJay became a competitive runner and was sponsored by Lloyd Clarke Sports. When she first started running after the birth of her daughter in her mid 20s, she could barely make it to the end of her street. 

“I went from it taking two weeks to run a quarter mile without my lungs flying out of my chest, to completing eight marathons,” she says.

“Accomplishing anything is frequently an endurance test. When you finish a marathon or any race that you set as your goal, you know you can do anything you set your mind to.”

DeeJay is a high achiever who goes the distance for Florida’s kids, someone tenacious and brave, who never gives up.

Event and ticket Information

For more information about Santa Fe College’s Women of Distinction Program, please click here or visit www.sfcollege.edu/wod.

This year, the WOD celebration will be held at Santa Fe’s Northwest campus, 3000 NW 83rd St., in the beautiful new Fine Arts Hall. The event features a program and a finely catered reception with heavy hors d’oeuvres and wine, and is scheduled for 4:30-7 p.m. Thursday, March 15.

Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for students, and $10 for children 12 and under, and may be purchased online or by calling 352-395-4181.

For more information, please contact Event Coordinator Cheryl Farrell at 352-395-5181.

CONTACT:

  • Julie Garrett, media relations, for general information about the Women of Distinction recognition program and for the honorees’ contact information, high res images, etc. – 352-395-5430 (office) or 352-870-2924 (cell) or email julie.garrett@sfcollege.edu
  • Cheryl Farrell, for information about the WOD event, 352-395-5181 or cheryl.farrell@sfcollege.edu