SRU Physician Assistant Program’s ‘ROCK-a-Bye Baby’ project benefits local NICU patients


Parent reading to their child

Kellee Gnipp reads to her daughter, Kenni, at the neonatal intensive care unit at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh. Gnipp, a Slippery Rock University graduate, benefitted from a donation of books and recorders from SRU’s physician assistant studies program.

Nov. 14, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — After nearly two months together under the same roof, Kellee Gnipp needed peace of mind before leaving her daughter overnight in the neonatal intensive care unit at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh. That's when nurses wheeled in a cart full of children's books and recording devices that were donated to the hospital from Slippery Rock University's Physician Assistant Program. The nurses told Gnipp that she can read the book into a heart-shaped recorder and her daughter, Kenni, would be able to hear her mother's voice even while they were apart.

"You worry, because she's going to think I'm not there for her," said Gnipp, a 2011 SRU graduate with a degree in elementary education. "I was the first person the nurses gave a recorder to, and when they were explaining it to me, I said, 'Oh, my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever.' Then, when they mentioned it was from Slippery Rock, I was like, OK, that makes it even better because that's where I went, and Slippery Rock University is the best place in the world. It was perfect timing."

Perfect timing is exactly what the Gnipp family needed after Kenni was born 10 weeks premature, Aug. 9, in the Bahamas while Kellee and her husband, Adam, were taking what they planned to be one last vacation together as a childless couple. Born 3 pounds, 1 ounce, Kenni was transported by private air ambulance to Pittsburgh and eventually discharged from West Penn Hospital, Oct. 4. Now completely healthy and back home in Cranberry Township, Kenni benefited from hearing her mother's voice during her final days in the NICU.

"There are social and emotional benefits, from the voice recognition of family members and being able to hear their mom or dad, but there are also numerous cognitive benefits," said Olivia Buterbaugh, SRU assistant professor of physician assistant studies, who worked in pediatric medicine for nearly a decade. "During infancy, rapid growth and brain development is occurring. Through numerous studies, it has been demonstrated that reading aloud to babies not only promotes overall neural pathway brain development, but also supports language development and builds brain processing speed."

Recognizing a need for parents to read to their infants in NICUs, Buterbaugh and a group of professors in SRU's PA program started a service project earlier this year titled "ROCK-a-Bye Baby." Faculty, staff and students from SRU's PA program collected more than $1,200 worth of books and recorders that are being used by families at West Penn Hospital.

Students with the book they donated

   SRU professors Breanne Westendorf, Olivia Buterbaugh and
   Natalie Brahm delivered donated books and recorders to
   West Penn Hospital.

Buterbaugh, along with fellow assistant professors of physician assistant studies Breanne Westendorf, Natalie Brahm and Heather Rapp, organized the project. Westendorf has first-hand experience with this situation -- her child spent time in the West Penn NICU too. The professors took their idea to Francesca Buckley, director of corporate relations at Allegheny Health Network, who then enlisted the support of the West Penn NICU team.

"We recognized an unmet need when the families have to be separated from their babies for various reasons," Buterbaugh said. "That connection is important. And during the COVID pandemic, in particular, there were some additional separation barriers as well that we wanted to provide that extra bit of comfort for."

Parents can visit and spend time with their babies in the NICU but it's not the same as having their own private room. There are always other babies and medical personnel around, parents cannot stay overnight, and many times, cannot even hold their own baby.

"There's a lot of guilt that comes with the NICU whenever you can't be there for whatever reason," Gnipp said. "Spending that much time in the NICU, your whole view changes. I would walk in and say her name and she'd smile. For me to know that she was still going to hear my voice whenever I wasn't there was just wonderful. This is just another way that helps the mom feel a little bit better, and this is a way that we can still do our best to make the baby feel better."

As more donations are gathered, the SRU professors plan to expand their "ROCK-a-Bye Baby" project to other hospitals, including UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.

"It's great for our University, with our emerging programs and our new College of Health Professions, to support our health systems in the western Pennsylvania region," Buterbaugh said. "We're grateful to have continued partnerships and exposure for our faculty and clinical-training students through positive projects such as this."

The first donation to West Penn included 100 books and 25 recorders. They were sourced from a combination of donations from faculty, students, the local community and the public, as well as monetary donations used to purchase the materials. Book titles were selected based on stories for infants and emotional family connections, such as "Guess How Much I Love You," "I Love You to the Moon and Back," "Very First Nursery Rhymes," and "You are a Star." The Gnipp family chose "Good Night, Biscuit."

"Outside of the story, I would still say things like, 'Hi, Kenni, this is your mom,'" Gnipps said. "Even now that we're out of the NICU, I can still use the recorders if I wanted to record something when she's going to my mom's or a babysitter. It gives you a little peace of mind knowing that even though I can't be there 24/7, my baby can still hear my voice."

For more information about "ROCK-a-Bye Baby," including how people can donate, contact Buterbaugh at 724.738.4641 or More information about SRU's PA program is available on the department's webpage.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |