Flor Esmeralda “Ezzy” Alarcon is a giggler. Barely five-feet tall and dressed in a pink top with fluttery sleeves, the giggles bubble up, over and over. We’ve been miming silly ideas for the photo poses we’d like her and her new friend, Diego Castro Marroquin, to strike, and both of them find the suggestions hilarious. Then Ezzy’s top slips an inch or two sideways and the bandages, concealing the wound from the heart surgery she just had, peek out—a surreal shocker in this moment of pink fluttery sleeves, sunshine, and giggles.
But that’s the truth of it.
Ezzy and Diego came to Barrington from their homes in El Salvador for a corrective heart procedure. They were brought here by the Chicago-Indiana chapter of Spokane, Wash.-based Healing the Children, a national nonprofit that works to give medical aid to children and teens in developing nations. Ezzy and Diego were both born with Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome, a rapid-heartbeat condition that can cause fainting, chest pain and difficulty breathing, impairing kids ability to participate in active endeavors. While hospitals and doctors worldwide provide pro bono treatment through Healing the Children for myriad medical conditions, Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington is known for its expertise in correcting WPW.
“So far, in the past 12 years, some 40 kids have come to Barrington for this procedure,” explains Jeff Degner, president of HTC’s Illinois-Indiana chapter. “Two more teens are expected to come in November.”
Degner, who has been a part of HTC since 1992, explains that one of the most important aspects of bringing children here for corrective surgeries is finding host families for them to stay with. The children are escorted to and from El Salvador by airline employees who volunteer their services to HTC. Typical stays in HTC host homes are about three weeks long, but depending on the condition being treated, may last as long as several months.
“These kids are coming into a foreign culture and environment, experiencing all the potential fears of surgery without their own families along with them to help them through it. Finding families here to ease all of those experiences and transitions is crucial,” says Degner.
Ezzy and Diego’s recent visit—their first to the United States, and their first trip ever out of El Salvador—was hosted by three Barrington families. Dr. Raja and Mrs. Cindee Sharma, and their daughter Ania, of Lake Barrington hosted Diego. Ezzy was co-hosted by two families: Megan and Mick Austin and their children Abby, Madeline, and Jack; and Jodie Barbera and her children Carlie, Gary, and William.
“I found out about Healing the Children, and the chance to have Ezzy stay with us, through Jeff Degner, with whom I worked at Delta Airlines for many years,” says Barbera. “We learned that Esmeralda would be coming in January, and were able to learn a bit more about her through her biography in early May. When we met her the day she arrived, we instantly fell in love—she is an adorable young woman who enjoys listening to music, reading, and playing soccer, which she couldn’t do much before because of her condition.”
Cindee Sharma found out about Healing the Children through a friend who had hosted teens who came to the area last winter for the same procedure
“The stories from my friend about hosting were extremely heartwarming and inspiring,” says Sharma. “My husband and I talked about how terrifying it would be to have to send our daughter away to another country for a medical procedure. Thinking about that, we knew we wanted to open up our house and hearts.”
Small initial trepidations about hosting a teen boy (daughter Ania is an only child) fell by the wayside upon meeting Diego.
“There was never any awkwardness. We embraced, smiled and took out our phones right away for Google Translate,” Sharma laughs. “We went to a Cubs game and ate watermelon—Diego’s favorite fruit. With Diego here, there was constant laughter that filled the house. Ania and Diego loved playing games, Mario Kart and others. And my husband was delighted to have a teenage boy here for a time—one who is great at baseball, but had had to put that on hold due to his condition—to throw balls with in the yard and with whom to watch all types of sports on TV. Now I’m not sure what we’ll do without him!”
“It’s just a great way to give back,” says Degner. “Most of us here have had good fortune in our lives, and helping these kids who don’t have the resources they need to thrive is incredibly satisfying.”
All funding for the Illinois/Indiana chapter of Healing the Children comes from private donations. In addition to individual families, says Degner, groups such as the Barrington Breakfast Rotary Club have been especially supportive.
“There are so many ways others can help,” says Degner. “You can host the children, as these families did. If you are a doctor or a medical professional, you can volunteer your professional services. You can make a monetary donation, and if you are a frequent flyer on United Airlines, you can even donate your miles to help bring the children here.”
For more information on Healing the Children, visit the local chapter at htc-il.org or the national website healingthechildren.org.