Helping children with disabilities in Belize for over 4 decades
Rotarians in District 6510 (Illinois, USA) have helped hundreds of children from Belize to receive orthopedic care through a program now in its fourth decade.
The Belize Children’s Program was established shortly after Eugene Verdu, a member of the Rotary Club of Belleville, went to the country as a papal volunteer with the Catholic church in 1976 and was struck by the number of children needing orthopedic care and the lack of available treatment.
Verdu made arrangements to bring a few of the children to the United States for care. District leaders heard about his efforts and approached the Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis, Missouri, to establish a program and help more children.
After sending a doctor to Belize to assess the situation, hospital administrators agreed to provide free care on the condition that the Rotarians make all the travel arrangements, fill out the necessary paperwork, find host families during the kids’ stay in the United States, and assume power of attorney for the children, whose parents could not afford to leave their jobs in Belize.
"That last requirement almost killed the program in the crib," recalls Don Barlow, a member of the Belleville club who agreed to take on power of attorney and later became the nonprofit organization's vice president when it incorporated 15 years later. Shriners had performed six operations on Barlow's leg when he was a child, so he was eager to help.
The organization sends a doctor to Belize every year to hold clinics to identify new patients and monitor those already in the program. In addition to the more than 300 who have been helped by the nonprofit, another 300 to 400 children have received care from other agencies as a result of being diagnosed.
The program has a working relationship with Help the Children, which takes some of the nonorthopedic cases, and the International Hospital for Children, which is in the process of setting up its own orthopedic clinic in Belize.
The Belleville club gives $1,000 a year to the program, and the Rotary Club of Belmopan, Belize, helps run the clinics and contributes to the airfare. Barlow has spoken to hundreds of clubs to raise funds and find host families.
“It’s always a grind finding host families,” he admits. But the success stories are worth it. He recalls one boy who underwent multiple operations to straighten an extreme case of bowed legs, making him inches taller.
“When the child’s mother was in the Belize City airport, she did not recognize her son,” he says. “When she did, she wept almost hysterically.”
Another early patient was able to walk normally after treatment for double clubfoot, and another ended up playing baseball in Belize eight years after recovering from a bad case of scoliosis.
Barlow says the program is an example of what any Rotary club can accomplish with determination and perseverance.
“We are not a big district,” he says. “And there have been times we could have held our committee meeting in a phone booth. But if you really, truly believe in a good cause, and you stick with it and get established, you can do just about anything.”