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A story of triumph and tragedy continues to light the hearts of many at AmeriCares during the holiday season. Since its inception in 1982, the AmeriCares Holiday Airlift tradition has been a memorial to a young Polish boy, Marek Slabon. AmeriCares gave this child a second chance at life, after flying him to the United States to undergo brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. In the weeks following the successful procedure, Marek was severely injured in a bicycle accident from which he later died. To provide solace to the community, hundreds of pounds of chocolate were sent to his hometown, and since that day, the Holiday Airlift continues in remembrance of his story.
In November, a team of 13 AmeriCares employees traveled to El Salvador for this year’s Holiday Airlift. Here is their account.Thursday:
An early rise had the group on their way to Santiago de Maria, a small rural community south of the capital. This quaint mountainous town is home to the first AmeriCares international clinic, AmeriCares Clìnica Integral de Atención Familiar. Founded in 2003 to meet the health care needs of the underserved population, AmeriCares opened the family clinic. Today, the clinic serves more than 2,000 patients a day, offering an array of different services including pediatrics, gynecology, pre-natal and post-natal care, dentistry and radiology
“I did not fully appreciate what a remarkable place our clinic is until we toured the local hospital in Santiago de Maria,” says Teri McCartney, an AmeriCares employee who participated in the airlift. “I was struck by the marked contrast between our pristine, fully equipped state of the art clinic and the condition of the public facility. We truly have made an incredible impact on the people of Santiago de Maria.”
Of the many outreach services the clinic extends to its community, the team had the opportunity to attend a diabetes presentation and listen as program members gave heart-felt testaments of gratitude for the program’s existence. “Through the program, we have all learned that diabetes is not a sickness, it is only a change in our way of life,” says Blanca Esperanza Mejicanos de Campos, a diabetes patient. “Thank you to everyone that works at AmeriCares, you have helped us to move on with our lives, and now we do not fear life.”
In the spirit of the holiday season, the team made their way to the Centro de Bienestar Infantil, a community organized day care center, where they would complete a community service project for the next couple of days. They purchased gallons of white, yellow and green paint and began giving the center a long awaited facelift. The eyes of more than 35 children lit up when they were presented with Beanie Babies that were donated by the students from East Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
“Upon our arrival at the day care center, the children leaped into my arms to greet me, held my hand to guide me to their play area, and giggled with delight when viewing their photos on a digital camera we had brought with us. The shared smiles, love and laughter are a heartfelt memory I’ll always cherish,” says Rose Leahy, an AmeriCares employee who participated in the airlift.
Geared up for another day of painting, the group walked over to the center and began their work. While some put on their painter’s hats, others put on their cooking aprons and began preparing lunch with the women who ran the center. The children arrived around 11 a.m. dressed in their Sunday best, and anxiously awaited lunch time. Together, AmeriCares employees and children enjoyed a wonderful meal of chicken, rice, tortillas and homemade pineapple juice in the newly painted cafeteria.
“The parents could not stop thanking us, they were so happy to know that their children had a happier, brighter place to be everyday,” says Danielle Fiori, an AmeriCares employee who participated in the airlift. “It was truly a feeling of accomplishment when we left the children’s center, I think this community service project really put life into perspective, and enabled all of us to truly understand the impact that organizations like AmeriCares has on a small rural community like Santiago de Maria.”
New friends were in abundance as the group left the center and headed to the Asilo San Francisco de Asis, a small elderly home in the community. Board games, cards and activity packets donated by the National Charity League Nutmeg Chapter in Ridgefield, Connecticut. were well received by the all the folks, yet, the company, enthusiasm and energy the Holiday Airlift team brought outweighed everything else.
To conclude the day’s activities, all hands were on board as the entire AmeriCares group unloaded and restocked an empty warehouse at the clinic. The team rallied and by day’s end the once bare warehouse was now overflowing with medicines, hygiene products, children’s coloring books and toys, all donated by schools, corporations and organizations.
On their last day before returning to Stamford, the AmeriCares employees made one final trip to the clinic. They attended a health fair and handed out hygiene bags to residents who had traveled over two hours to attend the session. When it was finished, the team bid farewell to their El Salvadorian colleagues and took all the mental photographs they could hold, they loaded the bus and departed from what was truly a trip they would never forget.
The AmeriCares Holiday Airlift brings meaning to the holiday season, allowing employees the opportunity to escape from the day-to-day activities in the office, and experience first hand the meaning of helping others. “Although we may have not have saved the world, we definitely touched people’s lives. It was powerful, it was emotional, it connected us to each other and to the AmeriCares mission, and it will always be remembered. It truly put life into perspective,” says employee, Danielle Fiori.