By Brian Hitsky
When Tod and Mary Freeman moved to Salinas, Ecuador 7½ years ago, they just didn’t want to retire, walk the beach and socialize with other expats — the couple had a passion to somehow make a difference in other people’s lives.
And, oh, what a difference they’ve made.
Through collaboration with medical professionals, hospitals and donors, the Freemans, who began their volunteer efforts raising money by selling hand-made paper raffle tickets for a child’s operation, have developed the Helping Kids in Ecuador Foundation (HKIE).The foundation recently celebrated its 300thsurgical procedure providing hope, help and healing to children in need.
Their team’s remarkable contribution helping underprivileged children correct their health deficiencies, some of them life threatening, began when they came across a glass donation jar at a Salinas restaurant counter seeking funds for a little girl’s operation. Without any organizational or fundraising training, the Freemans decided to raise money and acquired enough to pay for the operation.
“We realized we helped a child. We did something great,” Tod said.
Word spread about Tod and Mary’s accomplishment and soon others began seeking their assistance. A nun, Sister Veronica, asked if the Freemans could raise money for another child, then another and another.
Over the next year and one-half, they made arrangements to help 29 other children from up and down the coast, some with congenital cataracts, others with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), a few with severe kidney infections, surgeries to remove painful cysts, hernias and undescended testicles as well as providing leg braces for cerebral palsy sufferers.
When Mary and Tod decided to move to Cuenca, Sister Veronica gave them a referral — Dr. Pablo Salamea. “D., Pablo agreed to become our medical director,” Mary said. “His connections sent us into the stratosphere.”
Affiliated with Hospital del Rio as its chief of Plastic/Reconstructive Surgery and Chief of Surgeries at Hospital Vicente Coral Moscoso, Dr. Salamea knew lots of medical practitioners, surgeons and specialists. He and Hospital del Rio have been instrumental in keeping costs for procedures low. Many of the doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel donate their time.
The children come from very poor families, were not affiliated with IESS, and some don’t have bus money to bring the youngsters for their operations.HKIE takes care of the expenses.
Each child’s circumstance is vetted by Dr. Salamea, and he schedules the surgeries and arranges for all the treatment. “We can’t say enough about Dr. P and Hospital del Rio,’ Tod said. “They take children from everywhere.”
The story of Daniel, who was born with a heart defect and was given about five years to live, typifies the kind of impact HKIE has on the child, the family and the community. When HIKE learned of Daniel’s illness, he was 11. His prognosis was that he would die within a couple of months.
HIKE worked with another foundation, rushed Daniel to Quito for surgery and covered the hospital costs. The doctors worked for free. Daniel was a ‘blue baby” as his oxygen level was at 40%. He wasn’t able to walk up stairs. After surgery, his oxygen level rose to 90% and soon he was able to play sports with his friends.
“He was our most dramatic patient,” Mary said. “When he came home from Quito, more than 100 people were at the airport with balloons and signs cheering for him. He grabbed my leg and hugged me. To this day people still inquire about Daniel. He’s 16 now, playing football and swimming.”
Mary and Tod grew up on opposite coasts in the United States. Mary is a California native, while Tod is from Florida. They met is Sedona, AZ. Tod worked in the real estate business, while Mary traveled all over the world on cruise lines as a magician’s assistant. “Yes, I was the one sawed in half,” she said.
HKIE works with other Ecuadorian organizations including Foundation Rostros Felces-Cuenca, where Dr. Salamea is medical director, and Emaus House. Foundation Rostros Felces is a non-profit that has been performing surgeries for children for more than 25 years, while Emaus House provides food and a safe place to stay for the family until they can take their kid home.
Tod and Mary also take part in medical missions that bring teams of surgeons and medical professionals together for several days to perform procedures throughout Ecuador. The medical teams bring their own equipment and supplies and perform five or six surgeries per day.
“It’s the ultimate to be involved in saving a life or to make a positive change in a child’s life,” Tod said. “You can’t beat that to know that the child can lead a normal life.”
“It’s amazing the gratitude HKIE receives. Families can’t believe foreigners come to Ecuador and provide first-class medical care,” Mary said.
HKIE has helped children with cleft palate repair, burn reconstruction, birth defects, eye surgeries, heart defects and even building new ears.
The Freemans came to Ecuador looking to make a difference. Judging by the happy family members and kids adorned on the organization’s web page, who were aided by HKIE with life-changing surgeries, they have succeeded.
For more information about HKIE, go to helpingkidsinecuador.org