Anyone who’s reared a child will tell you that parenthood is full of challenges and anxiety. And that’s if the child is healthy. If there are problems of any kind, worries multiply.
Cono DePaola, a Brooklyn father of two, is lucky not to know this from personal experience. At the same time, as a volunteer with Gift of Life, Inc. (G.O.L.)—a Rotary Club program that helps kids born with heart defects get the life-saving surgeries they need to live healthy, productive lives—he has first-hand knowledge about caring for the critically ill.
One conversation with an exhausted mother remains particularly vivid to him. Although the exchange took place many years ago, the woman’s words still play in DePaola’s mind: “You have no idea how hard it is to be the parent of a dying child,” she told him.
DePaola had met the woman a few days before this conversation, when she and her 16-year-old daughter first arrived in the United States from Russia. By that point, DePaola had been a G.O.L. volunteer for several years. Nonetheless, he recalls being shaken by the woman’s simple, yet sobering, assertion—a statement that reaffirmed why he had become involved in Gift of Life in the first place.
Gift of Life began in 1975 when a group of Rotary Club members from Manhassett, N.Y., learned of a gravely ill 5-year-old Nigerian girl named Grace Agwaru. They raised funds, found volunteer surgeons willing to operate on her, and brought her and her mother to the States for the procedure. They then assisted with aftercare and ultimately sent the child and her mother back to Africa. Three plus decades later, Agwaru is a G.O.L. spokeswoman.
Since its founding 35 years ago, G.O.L. has grown into an international organization with 60 programs scattered throughout the world. Kids from 64 countries on six continents have been treated, at no cost to them, thanks to G.O.L.’s intrepid fundraising and the volunteer efforts of doctors, hospitals, translators, and hand-holders.
DePaola got involved with G.O.L. serendipitously. “It was a very personal thing,” the heavily accented DePaola begins. “It was 1985 and I got a phone call from a woman my wife and I had met while on vacation in Santo Domingo. She’d had a daughter in 1980 who’d been diagnosed with a heart condition but the doctors told her she had to wait until she was five or six to be operated on. When the girl was about five, the mother called us and said she was at St. Francis Hospital on Long Island. At the time, St. Francis was the center for all heart surgery in the area. I went to the hospital, saw the woman, and asked how she’d managed to get to the U.S. She pointed to a group of men standing nearby. I went up to them and asked how they knew this family, this child. They said they were from Rotary International and told me about the Gift of Life. At the time, the group was all male, which I didn’t like, but I spoke to them and they invited me to a birthday party they were hosting for the girl two days later.”
DePaola attended the party and began talking to a volunteer from Brooklyn. The man told DePaola about weekly meetings of Rotary Chapter 7250 in a Coney Island restaurant and suggested he attend. “He told me that the only reason they met was to do good, charitable work and said that they didn’t play cards or gossip,” DePaola recalls. He found the group’s motto, “One heart, one act at a time,” compelling. Likewise the mission: “To advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through the improvement of health, the support of education, and the alleviation of poverty.”
In the decades since then, the DePaola family has welcomed people flying into J.F.K. airport, transported them back and forth to the hospital, done translating in both Spanish and Italian, visited patients in the hospital and while recuperating, and taken them sightseeing before they return to their countries of origin. They’ve also raised funds to teach physicians how to perform basic coronary surgeries in countries around the world so that children can be cared for closer to home. While the United States—admittedly the world leader in medical technology—remains a hub for procedures, DePaola boasts about having raised revenue to train doctors in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine.
Pat Coulaz is the only paid staff person at the New York area G.O.L. and she is quick to tell me that the group has no agenda other than to assist low-income kids in getting needed healthcare. Their campaigns have drawn volunteers from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats, she adds, all of them mindful of the fact that heart defects—affecting approximately 1 percent of all newborns—can be easily and permanently cured if early intervention is provided. G.O.L. reached the milestone of 10,000 operations in 2009, 3,700 of them in the New York metropolitan area.
At the present time G.O.L. works with St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, N.Y., the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, and the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. “A lot of other hospitals, including SUNY Downstate, worked with us in the past,” Coulaz says. “In the last few years, because of financial constraints, several have had to pull back. At the height, in the early 2000s, we were bringing 80 kids a year to New York. Last year we brought 25.” They come from places where such care is unavailable: Barbados, Belize, China, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, Haiti, Iraq, Jamaica, Kosovo, Nigeria, Palestine, Panama, Trinidad, and Uganda.
“We give the hospitals a token fee of $4,500 – $5,000,” Coulaz says, “but once the families purchase round-trip airfare and secure their visas, all other services are donated—from doctor visits, to surgery, medication, housing in New York, transportation, and food. Our volunteers give hours and hours of their time.”
Why do they do it? One reason, Coulaz says, is because the rewards are immediate. “You can bring a child in with no energy and blue lips, who can barely move, and a month later he or she will be running around. The child will be able to race into your arms and give you a hug within weeks.” Not surprisingly, the word miracle is repeated again and again as Coulaz speaks.
Perhaps most impressive, the annual budget for Rotary Chapter 7250 is a paltry $250,000, which includes Coulaz’s salary. “If we had to pay our volunteers for their efforts we’d be out of business,” she laughs.
Bay Ridge resident Faina Fujii, a 75-year-old retiree, has been involved in G.O.L. for the past two years. She learned of the program through the Church of the Lady of Kazan, a Russian Orthodox congregation in Sea Cliff, N.Y. that she attends. Fluent in Estonian, Russian, and German, Fujii has worked with six families, most of them from remote areas of the former Soviet Union.
Her work includes translating at pre-surgery conferences, medical work-ups, and follow-up appointments. “I also take the mothers to the Ronald McDonald House on Long Island where they’ll stay during their child’s hospitalization and where the children will go to recuperate,” Fujii says. “It’s a wonderful place with a big sitting room, a toy-filled playroom, a dining room, and a kitchen where parents can cook. The Russian G.O.L. provides some Russian foods, but there’s also common stuff for everyone—coffee, tea, milk, cereal, fruit, and vegetables.”
Fujii helps families get settled, making sure that all passports are safely locked in the House safe. In addition, she or another Russian-speaking member of the G.O.L. make sure to stay in regular phone contact with both mother and child, and will take them to a Russian place of worship if they wish to go. But that’s not all. Fujii admits that she’s also had to assuage rumors, in one case assuring a desperate mother that her child’s organs would not be removed and sold, something people in her remote village had told her was inevitable.
Person-to-person relationships are what drive G.O.L., and participants see part of their mission as countering stereotypes about particular races, nationalities, and ethnic groups. Volunteer Cono DePaola likens it to a ministry: “If someone asks me what I did in my life, it’s an easy question to answer,” he says. “Wednesday night is Rotary night. It’s like going to church.”