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Robert Leonard and Jay Pontier present a check to Misty Good, MD, MS, Division Chief, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at UNC Children’s.

Annual event supports the Neonatal Special Gifts Fund

By Mark Kimmel, UNC Health Foundation

The cool Carolina air held a crisp bite, the morning sun painting the leaves in fiery autumn hues. In the heart of this vibrant landscape, Robert Leonard and Jay Pontier stood among friends and family at Diavolo Disc Golf Course in Cary, North Carolina. It was no ordinary day for these disc golf aficionados. In fact, it was a day for one of the most important events they host each year – the UNC Children’s NICU Fundraiser.

Robert and Jay are brothers in arms through their fondness of disc golf, but also through their shared experience of spending the first fragile weeks of their son’s lives in the NICU. Robert’s son, Oliver, spent 76 days there in 2018, while Joey, Jay’s oldest child, was in the NICU for an equally nerve-wracking 14 days back in 2005.

A testament to the unwavering care that resided within those NICU walls, both Oliver and Joey are living their lives to the fullest. As Robert likes to say with a wide-eyed smile, “if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know” that these boys were born premature, Oliver at 27 weeks and Joey at 29.

Oliver is now your typical 6 year old who plays video games, takes piano lessons, loves art and swimming in the pool. Meanwhile, Joey, 18, recently graduated from Green Level High School in Cary, and is off to High Point University in the fall.

Leonard Family

Oliver Leonard in the NICU as a baby and today at a Carolina Hurricanes game.
Oliver Leonard

The calendar had just flipped to 2018 when a week of “pains” during Maribeth Leonard’s pregnancy took a shocking turn. Their doctor urged a trip to the ER, and to the first-time parents’ surprise, Maribeth was in labor.

“The pregnancy was perfect until then,” Robert recalled. “No fertility issues – then suddenly, she felt terrible.”

Rushed to N.C. Children’s Hospital, Oliver arrived eight hours later. “A shock of a lifetime,” Robert admitted. “You know you’re having a kid, but nothing prepares you for such a sudden birth.”

Oliver spent two and a half months in the NICU, where the family received exceptional care. “The staff were attentive and caring,” Robert emphasized. “Never once did they say they were too busy. You could tell they loved their jobs, understood they cared for patients, but also for families in a traumatic situation.”

Pontier Family

Joey Pontier as a baby in the NICU and today as a teenager standing in front of a car.
Joey Pontier

Jay and Karen’s struggle with miscarriages nearly led them to believe parenthood was only a dream. They were referred to John M. Thorp Jr., MD, an expert in the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UNC Hospitals. It was Dr. Thorp’s clinical expertise that helped bring Joey into the world.

“Our stay in the NICU wasn’t as difficult or as lengthy as Oliver, but was still a life-altering moment,” Jay said. “You begin to understand that life is so precious and it’s on the edge of surviving or not. We remain blessed to this day to have Joey.”

Giving Back

United by disc golf, Robert and Jay’s friendship has spanned decades, taking a unique turn in 2002 when Jay’s spontaneous lunchtime game sparked a lifelong passion. He would later create the Capital Area Disc League (CADL) in 2009, where he remains president.

Robert, on the other hand, carved a career within the sport itself, serving as the policy and compliance specialist for the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA). He’s a seasoned veteran, overseeing rules and competitions – even officiating at world championships.

“We interface just about every day on different disc golf perspectives and then sometimes just checking in with our children and families,” added Jay. “Our friendship is always there, but it’s heavy disc golf.”

The sport’s inherent community spirit resonates beyond competition. Several tournaments include a charitable component, with PDGA-sanctioned events donating a portion of player fees to local causes.

For Robert, this spirit took a personal turn. Having witnessed the exceptional care his son Oliver received at UNC Children’s NICU, he yearned to express his gratitude. Inspired by years of organizing tournaments, a lightbulb moment struck: channel his passion for disc golf into giving back.

With Jay and the local support from CADL, the annual UNC Children’s NICU Fundraiser was born in 2019. Held every November, this disc golf event has raised close to $20,000 for the Neonatal Special Gifts Fund.

“One day in the NICU, the social worker discussed applying for Medicare,” Robert recalls, reflecting on his experience. “The kindness overwhelmed me – the minister, the food passes… how will we ever be able to thank these people for their help?”

New participants often share similar stories, forging a powerful connection around shared experiences, proving that nobody walks this path alone.

“Looking back,” Robert says, “throwing discs in the woods raises funds to support the very services that helped us. It’s the players and donors who truly make it happen, not just us organizing it.”

This tournament transcends fundraising. It honors the NICU team, celebrates Oliver and Joey’s journeys, and inspires others to give back. The legacy extends beyond the course, weaving together stories of resilience, gratitude, and the unique power of community forged through disc golf – all in service of life’s most precious blessings.

To learn more about supporting the NICU at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, contact Jinhee Lee, Director of Development, at 919-445-2949 or

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