If only the world could get along like the families from different corners of the world I have in the Dare to Dream House do. Love is the universal language.
—Elissa Montanti, Founder of Global Medical Relief Fund
We were reminded of all the good work that changemaker Elissa Montanti is doing with her Global Medical Relief Fund when we saw the photo of the badly injured boy, Omar Abukwalk, a five-year-old victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whom she’s recently brought to the U.S.
Since we last spoke with Elissa in 2012, she has helped hundreds of children like Omar suffering from injuries due to war, natural disasters or illness from all over the world. We felt it was time to catch up with Elissa again.
EYE: Tell us about Omar, your most recent patient whose photo made such an impression on us?
ELISSA: Omar is from Gaza and lost his entire family in the current Israeli-Gaza conflict. He watched as his entire family was buried under the rubble. The poor child is traumatized. He lost his arm and has severe injuries to his tiny body. It’s an unspeakable heartache!
Yet, he is a miracle! He is the only one of his family to be alive. When rescue workers found him, they were shocked he survived. He’s having surgery on his leg for a skin graft and will also be fitted for a prosthetic arm in the weeks ahead.
EYE: How did you find him or did he find you?
ELISSA: I contacted an aide group, RAHMA Worldwide. I was searching for organizations that work in war zones and found them. I had never heard of them before; it’s the first time I worked with them. I told them I could only bring one child because I had a house full of children from Rwanda and Guatemala.
RAHMA, by the grace of God, got Omar and his aunt to Egypt. I took it from there. I worked with Customs and Border Protection and then flew him here. I think he’s the first, or one of the first, to come to the U.S. for help.
EYE: Is he acclimating well and how long will he stay?
ELISSA: He is with his aunt and they are acclimating with the other families. He arrived at JFK Airport on January 17. His treatment should be about two months. With everything going well, Omar, his aunt and her family plan and hope to move to Egypt. We will see him when he returns in follow-up visits until he’s 21.
EYE: Do children come to you or do you usually go to agencies like you did with Omar?
ELISSA: We get numerous requests from just word of mouth from other kids we’ve helped. Also, we’ve become globally known. GMRF works with the American Embassy, Customs and Border Protection. We sponsor everything except the medical, which is all donated mostly by Shriners Children’s Hospital. Shriners Hospital has helped 90 % of my children.
We’ve helped children from 60 countries with over 1500 follow-up visits over the past 25 years. The Shriners, with the Ministry of Health, identify children. I intend to help as many as possible. I could only bring one now because I have a full house with five other children.
EYE: How long does a child stay with you at the Dare to Dream House?
ELISSA: Depending on if they are new or need follow-up, it could be two to nine months. All kids are followed-up until 21. We bring them back each or every other year as they outgrow their prosthetic or need additional surgery.
Aside from providing airfare and visa expense, we also provide room and board, clothes, plus all transportation back and forth to doctors’ appointments and to Shriners Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. Let’s not forget, love.
EYE: Out of all the children, is there a particular story that sticks with you after all these years?
ELISSA: Honestly there are too many to write about. However, I would have to say Kenan, the first boy I helped and the reason I founded the charity and my life’s mission. I always say nothing in life is a coincidence.
While I was crippled with anxiety after my mother’s and childhood sweetheart’s deaths, I prayed for God to send me healing. Little did I know it would come in the form of a letter from a 14-year-old boy from war-ravaged Bosnia asking for two new arms and a leg he lost by stepping on a landmine. While I was putting him back together with new limbs, he was putting me back as well. He is my hero!
EYE: Is there a youngster who has been with you a long time?
ELISSA: I will tell you about Ahmed. During the Iraq war I was getting dozens of emails a week from our military regarding injured children. Long story short, I went to Iraq to bring three children back. One child was 7-year-old Ahmed who lost his arm and was blinded by walking into a crossfire. I bring kids back every year.
When he was 15, I asked his mother if I could keep him with me. Today he is 26. He works; he’s going to college; he’s on an international blind soccer team; he and I are in a band, Mercury Rising, together! He never saw a piano in his life. He plays by ear and is a genius.
EYE: What do these kids find the most difficult to deal with once they are with you?
ELISSA: Actually nothing. They bond with other kids in the Dare to Dream House. They know they are not alone in their injuries. The kids and guardians eat, play and all bond together. My Dare to Dream House is a global family. It’s a mini UN.
ELISSA: I recently wrote a song, “Put Them Back Together Again.” It’s my charity’s anthem. I’ll just give you the first verse so you have an idea:
“Put Them Back Together Again “
From the winds of no mercy
To the sorrows of war
By the earth when she trembles
They can’t take it anymore
They are wounded by nature
So let’s do all we can
These are our children
And they all need a friend.
Where will they go from here
How will they fly
How will they survive
Put them back together again.
EYE: I understand you also have a very powerful documentary coming out. Would you give TWE a sense of the story?
ELISSA: Let’s Do a Miracle tells the story of how I formed the Global Medical Relief Fund. It follows the return of four cruelly abused Tanzanian children who must have their prostheses refitted.
The documentary shows how I help them to heal, and also help find a way for them to be free of threats that put them in these gut-wrenching situations.
EYE: You’ve built a tremendously successful, impactful foundation, and you started out working from a closet in your house. What kind of advice would you pass along to anyone who might want to start a foundation and keep it sustainable?
ELISSA: Persistence is the key to success. Don’t let negativity build walls. Live your passion. Believe in your dream with all of your being.
EYE: After twenty-five years what do you still want to achieve with your foundation?
ELISSA: I just want to continue to help the innocent children of war and natural disasters who have little to no resources. I hope my drop in the bucket overflows for others to be inspired to make a difference in their life in this world.
EYE: What keeps you going after all these years of dealing with such horrific situations involving these most vulnerable children like Omar?
ELISSA: It never gets old seeing a broken child put back together, seeing them walk and reaching on their own. It’s tremendous and a wonderful sense of making a difference. Simply put, empathy is what makes a difference on this earth.
EYE: Thank you, Elissa, for your time and insights during your very difficult demanding and busy time at GMRF. What an impact you are making! May your work continue to flourish and be supported. Wishing Omar and all the children successful recoveries and bright futures!
Contacts for Elissa Montanti and GMRF:
Photos Courtesy GMRF
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