Children are supposed to have oodles of love, healthfulness in spades, nutritious food, and plenty of time to run, dance, and play throughout their childhoods. Unfortunately, things don’t always work that way.
Charlene Brennan has witnessed firsthand how tough childhood can be: Kimara, 12, had a huge rib hump that compromised her shoulder blade, exerted pressure on her lungs, making breathing challenging and walking impossible. Margarita, 18, was born with a spine malformation that made one leg four inches shorter and forced her to “toe” walk to compensate.
But thanks to the Belizean Children’s Project, founded in 1977 by her uncle Eugene Verdu and run through the local Rotary district, those young women and about 340 others — all natives of the small, rural Central American country — have undergone surgery to fix their orthopedic problems at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in St. Louis near her Southern Illinois home.
Brennan’s involvement in the organization began more than 18 years ago. Her participation has included accompanying American doctors to Rotary’s five clinics in Belize, bringing the children back to St. Louis for surgery, managing medical appointments, waiting outside operating rooms, and finding host families for the 20 or so children who come yearly.
Many of the children’s lives are changed dramatically through what most Americans would consider relatively simple surgeries to correct scoliosis, hip-joint malformations, or bowed legs. But Brennan has also cried countless tears for children who have had a foot or leg amputated or couldn’t be helped.
Children who can benefit from surgery generally travel to the U.S. without their parents and stay an average of six months for surgery and follow up.So the host families are a critical piece of allowing these children to get the medical treatment they need.Children can be as young as a year old, so the families make an enormous commitment. “Basically, it’s the same as if they had another child. It takes a completely dedicated stay-at-home parent, but we find people to do this,” Brennan says.
Finding host families has become among her toughest challenges because fewer homes have a stay-at-home parent. To recruit them, Brennan reaches out to church and civic organizations, connections on social networks, parents who’ve already hosted, parents who home school their own children, empty-nesters and active retirees, and her own 26 first cousins who periodically host or offer support. In one case, she located an Amish family for a Mennonite Belizean child so his beliefs wouldn’t be compromised, Brennan says.
To persuade families to volunteer, she’s often turns to Belizean children who can share their stories of hope. They learn English in school, so language usually isn’t a barrier.
The program started in 1977 with Verdu bringing just one or two children annually, often with his own funds. His hard work and her family ties and faith inspired Brennan to get involved in 1994. Once she visited Belize, she became hooked. “It was heartbreaking to see children unable to open their mouths to eat and families who didn’t have resources for braces or artificial limbs. Many children couldn’t go to school. I heard their parents’ desperation. Once you witness that, you can’t turn away,” she says.
Her involvement snowballed, and in 2010 she became the organization’s care coordinator. She travels to Belize five to 10 days annually with American doctors. “When I started, transportation was in the back of an uncovered pickup truck or a chicken bus. Roads went through the rain forest. But it’s gotten better as the country’s become a tourist attraction.”
Through the years, she’s hosted five children in her home, and taught them basics of American life, such as how to avoid being scalded by hot water from a faucet. She also watched one child’s joy at Disneyworld on her family vacation. “He was in our country for hip surgery and melded into our family. He’s since married, no longer has any medical problems, and has a strong life in Belize. And he still talks about Disneyworld,” she says.
Help Is Always Near
Ripples have spread far. “When you live in the Midwest and take the children to church or talk about them at a Rotary meeting, everyone wants to help,” she says. “Everyone” has included her immediate family. Her husband Patrick became the group’s technological advisor. He and their older son Michael built a wheelchair-accessible house in Belize for a paralyzed woman who couldn’t be helped in the U.S. Michael and younger brother Cory each spent a month in Belize during their senior high school year for a service project. “Throughout my life, my mom’s always given 100 percent,” Cory says.
Real-estate partner Dede Strano agrees. “When she makes up her mind to do something, nobody can change that. She gives love, time, and money. I think part of the reason is great family values she inherited, which she instilled in her sons,” Strano says.
Dorothy Burke, who met Brennan as a real estate client and whose husband is also a Rotarian, found her passion so contagious that she has hosted three children. The experience has proved a positive experience for her six children, she says, adding, “They learned about Belizean cuisine when one teenager cooked favorite recipes.”
Brennan feels good that a second generation is in place to help continue the program in both countries, but she worries about the difficulty of securing funds due to the economy. “Shriners in St. Louis is now the only hospital in its network taking international patients. Spinal implant hardware can cost $110,000 for two children,” she says.
Her uncle has more ambitious goals: “I’d like to have enough equipment and resources in Belize, so we can put ourselves out of business.”
Brennan agrees. “It would be amazing if children didn’t have to leave their homes. Until that happens we’ll request assistance for loving host families and donations to accomplish our mission,” she says.