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Commentary: Helping Hands creates healthy hearts in Honduras

 After her child had open-heart surgery, a mother waits.
Michael Dulick | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - ‘Tis the Season! And what better gift than a healthy heart!

Helping Hands for Honduras just finished its 21st brigada, this time saving the lives of 33 youngsters in need of open-heart surgery. Chemo was in the first brigada back in September 2008. So I got his teachers’ permission to take him to Tegus for a check-up. (“Shouldn’t be a problem, since he doesn’t come to class anyway.” CHEMO!!)

The team was at the end of its three-week run; we got there as the last two little kids were wheeled into recovery. We put on garments and they let us see the kids and the absolutely beatific smiles of their mothers and fathers. And I showed off Chemo. “Look here! He had the same operation and now look at him! That’s just what will happen for you!” And Chemo, usually so “shy,” did his part, bestowing encouraging smiles.

I took pictures with Ron Roll and Alba, the founders of Helping Hands, and their daughters Nelly and Cynthia, who have played increasingly helpful roles with the kids. I didn’t realize how helpful til the next night, when a sort of “Birthday Party” was planned at the biggest McDonald’s in the capital for the kids and their families. Ron Roll said, “This is the first time we’ve done it this way, so we’ll see.”

It was a fund-raiser. You bought tickets for a big sandwich (the McNifica) and somehow it rebounds to Helping Hands. Of course, someone paid for the families’ tickets, and I bought mine and Chemo’s.

Now, you may be thinking, McDonald’s? For heart patients? That thought crossed my mind, too, especially when I was chatting with Junior, who was making balloon animals for the kids. He was so simple, so quiet, I thought he was “slow,” you know. I asked him if people were supposed to pay for the animals. “No, no, I just like to laugh.”

Chemo and Dr. Junior
Credit Michael Dulick | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Chemo and Dr. Junior

It wasn’t until he slipped on the white coat of a medical student that I realized I was the slow one! Nelly and Cynthia had asked him to participate! “But my girlfriend is sort of mad at me; she’s a nutritionist.”

Then the games began. I never for a minute thought Chemo would participate, but you can’t say no to Nelly and Cynthia, so he did the sack race, the “hot potato,” and the “Simon says.” I would have loved to have read his mind. Did he feel as sweet a connection to these kids as I hoped he might? I guess so.Two of the nurses came from St. Louis, Children’s Hospital, to be exact. Maybe you know them: Elaine Fitzgerald and Yvonne Renick. Such a small world, such big hearts! 

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Our trip to Tegus coincided with the return from Spain of Elio and Mema’s daughter Felixsa, who was studying theology there for her missionary work as a nun. Her mission? Honduras, of course!

She’s a member of an order that lives exclusively off donations. So she arrived with one small suitcase. She’d been gone so long, Chemo had never met her.

Felixsa arrives.
Credit Michael Dulick | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Felixsa arrives.

She had told her parents that she would have to stay with her community, way at the other end of town in the shadow of the big Suyapa church. But as soon as she got there, Mother Superior told her, “What are you doing here! You stay with your family for now!” That’s the kind of religious obedience that makes sense!

Two nights later, having recovered more or less from “jet lag,” Felixsa invited us all over to Elio and Mema’s for Mass and a little party, her brother and two sisters and all the kids and in-laws. Padre Ovidio, a friend of the family for years and years, and just about the most engaging and dynamic priest you’re gonna find, had us so enthralled that even Chemo sang the hymns.

Befitting Felixsa’s vow of poverty, the repast was basically pot-luck, we just shared what we had, and this family is so naturally generous that no one lacked for anything. I made her promise that we’d discuss theology at some future time; and I’m looking forward to it. Oh, and she treated Chemo like she’d known him all her life.

Back in Las Vegas, we celebrated the second birthday of Chemo’s little cousin Albita. We got a cake almost as big as she is, and enough music to make her dance. 

And on Nov. 1 and 2, we celebrated all our beloved departed, first visiting and tending the graves of our “angelitos,” children who died in infancy, whose ranks swell by two or three a month, and then to pray for all our loved ones who are “at rest,” some young ones by violence, some old after a long life, and all those in between. The depths of feeling and grieving and pleading are undiminished by time or space, as I know myself, thinking of my brothers John and Bob who died last year.

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