It’s walking up the stairs to their bedrooms.
El Hogar San Francisco de Asis is a three-story home run by Florida native Dr. Anthony Lazzara that houses sick and destitute kids, ranging in age from newly born to 21, whose families have either abandoned them or can’t afford appropriate treatment. But these kids are stronger than your average kid, and even the wheelchair-bound and paraplegic children find ways to scoot their bodies up and down the hardwood staircase of their safe haven to brush their teeth and get in bed.
Often there are volunteers strong enough to carry them, but watching is excruciating.
“It’s amazing what some of these kids have overcome,” says a volunteer who recently spent time in the home. “I personally saw one of the teenaged girls with cerebral palsy fall flat on her face coming downstairs. She didn’t complain or want help. Her courage is inspiring. I wish I was strong enough – or rich enough - to build an elevator.”
Since 1987, when Dr. Lazzara bought the home and opened the clinic, it has been his dream to have an elevator.
“I am seriously concerned that a critical injury and even death may occur if a child falls on the stairs,” Lazzara told FoxNews.com. “I am also concerned that the volunteers who carry the children up the stairs may be seriously injured.”
Lazzara was a well-established doctor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA before a trip to India in 1982 touched his heart and changed his perception of his cushioned life in the states. “I thought what I was doing in the States, anybody could do, really,” he has said. So he started sending letters to charitable organizations around the world to see how he could help.
The Catholic-raised doctor, now a secular Franciscan, was offered a room in a clinic for the poor that was run by fellow Franciscans about 30 miles outside of Lima, Peru. The non-Spanish speaker jumped at the opportunity and arrived in Lima with a stethoscope and a few Spanish books to learn the native language. And that’s what set the ball in motion for him to start his own home for kids four years later.
Lazzara, 68, funds the home through donations, employs 24/7 nurses and accepts volunteers to help out from around the world. Yet he never envisioned that his dream of starting a home for sick and impoverished children would grow to what it is today. “We had 20 children when I first moved into the home,” he told FoxNews.com.
Almost daily, families and local officials show up on Lazzara’s doorstep seeking his help with children whose ailments range from malnutrition to spinal cord injuries. And more and more children who come to the home have serious problems getting up and down the stairs.
“The children with cerebral palsy and spinal cord lesions really require an elevator,” Lazzara said.
More than half of the kids in the home would benefit from one. “The children who have nails in their extremities are particularly prone to severe tissue damage if they fall on the stairs,” said Lazzara, “They usually strike the nails against the steps or wall.”
The children at El Hogar are extremely well taken care of under the doctor’s watchful eye. The doctor, who attends daily Mass, leads them through a prayer and then sits with them through almost every meal. The kids follow each prayer with, “may God bless the doctor too.”
And why not, as he assures that they are well fed and clean, that they go to school or are home-schooled, and that they respect each other. They don’t wince at others’ facial burns or missing limbs – rather, they embrace them. The biggest challenge for many isn’t overcoming their ailments, but those never-ending stairs.
One volunteer had to change a 6-year-old cerebral palsy patient who wet herself while waiting to be carried up the stairs. “It’s devastating,” the volunteer recalled. “She’s fully capable of going up the stairs, but she’s just scared of falling.”
As you can imagine, “Dr. Tony” as many know him, is in dire need of help. He has already gotten several estimates and says, “I would like an elevator installed as soon as possible.” Sadly, the only issue is funding.
“In some places, the children dance to the happy music of life,” says the spiritual doctor. “And in others, only cling to existence. All are ours.”
If the saying is true that “it takes a village to raise a child” it also takes a village to build an elevator to keep that child safe.
“We are the only hope these children have,” Dr. Lazzara says.