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Cliff Preston Uf Health Nicu Cuddler

Meet Cliff Preston — 2018 Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award Finalist

Cliff Preston never misses work on Christmas morning.

And he never complains about the schedule, either, calling his annual shift at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital in Gainesville, Florida “the best three hours of his year.”

Preston spends that time with newborns. He has volunteered for 26 years at UF Health Shands as a “cuddler” for hospitalized newborns, in the absence of a parent. Since 1992, Preston has logged more than 3,300 hours volunteering in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at UF Health Shands, comforting thousands of infants.

Preston is representing UF Health Shands, as one of four finalists for The NASCAR Foundation’s Eighth Annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award. The award, named in honor of the foundation’s late founder and chairwoman, honors NASCAR fans who are also accomplished volunteers working for children’s causes in their communities throughout the United States.

The award winner will be determined via an online fan vote that is running until Nov. 19 at 5 p.m. (ET) at NASCARfoundation.org/Award. The winner will be announced on Nov. 29 during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards at Wynn Las Vegas.

The NASCAR Foundation will donate $25,000 to the charities represented by the award finalists, with the winner’s charity receiving a $100,000 donation. Since the award’s inception, The NASCAR Foundation has impacted the lives of more than 260,000 children by providing more than $1.2 million in contributions to charities represented by finalists for the award.

UF Health Shands’ NICU opened in 1967 and treats approximately 800 critically ill infants each year; some days, more than 50 infants may be receiving care in the unit. If Preston wins the award, the $100,000 donation from The NASCAR Foundation will help provide a state-of-the-art web-cam system at UF Health Shands, designed to keep families connected when children are hospitalized and parents are elsewhere.

Preston’s extensive volunteer commitment includes Christmas mornings and other holidays — when volunteer slots are especially difficult to fill.

“I’m humbled and honored to represent UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital,” Preston said. “This is far outside any experience I’ve had in my life. To be involved with the NASCAR Family … it’s pretty awesome.”

Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

That’s especially true, considering Preston’s longtime love of NASCAR, which evolved from his affinity for muscle cars and stock cars as a young man. His favorite NASCAR memory is attending the Daytona 500 with family members, with a great view of pit-road exit and the start-finish line.

Preston’s all-time favorite driver is NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott. As far as current drivers go, his favorite is former Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne. He got to meet both this past Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where the award finalists were announced.

Preston got another special treat earlier this year, courtesy of The NASCAR Foundation. Chase Elliott, son of Bill Elliott and a current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contender, was tabbed to inform Preston over the phone that he had become an award finalist.

Christmas — which can never come too early for Preston — had indeed arrived prematurely.

“I was floored and nearly speechless,” Preston said. “It was awesome … the son of ‘Awesome Bill from Dawsonville’ calling me … it was just perfect.”

“I’ve been really inspired about NASCAR by this whole experience. [To win the award] would be an honor beyond anything I could imagine.”