After pandemic pause, one woman’s crusade for kids resumes


NEW YORK — After more than two decades beating the odds to obtain medical care for children injured in war and crises around the world, Elissa Montanti’s Global Medical Relief Fund was thwarted by COVID-19.

The Dare to Dream House, the typically bustling boarding house her nonprofit maintains a few doors down from her Staten Island home, fell silent.

“I was in a dark unknown,” she said.

“My fear was, my God, what’s going to happen to the charity? These poor kids, are they going to have no place to come and be helped to get arms, or legs to walk?”

The pandemic put a hold on international travel, and on the services she has facilitated for the more than 450 kids who have passed through her care. Prosthetics needed fitting. Surgeries required scheduling. From her converted walk-in closet office, Montanti wondered if she would ever again see her children, as she regards them.

Now, Montanti is bringing her charity back to life.

As restrictions have begun lifting across the country, Montanti faces a new set of hurdles unique to a post-pandemic world. In addition to “knocking on doors” to recruit volunteers and professionals to her cause, disease prevention protocols have become critical.

In June, outside the entrance of Richmond University Medical Center, she served as counselor to four recent arrivals from Tanzania who were nervous before receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations.

The four have albinism — a lack of color in the skin, hair and eyes. All had lost limbs to machete attacks; in their homeland, some believe that the bodies of albinos contain a mystical energy, and unscrupulous shamans use them to make potions that are sold at exorbitant prices.

Now Pendo Sengerema, 20, was afraid of the shot. After 15 minutes of gentle coaxing, Montanti calmed her, and they entered the hospital hand in hand.

“They live in a safe house right now. They cannot go back to their villages” for fear of more attacks, Montanti said. She held the youngest of the four, 12-year-old Baraka Cosmas, on her lap as he received the first round of his vaccination. His tears turned to smiles after he received a well-timed cookie.

The next day they would travel to a Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia for their prosthetic fittings. During their brief stay, they roomed at the Dare to Dream House, studying together and eating ice cream outside on the stoop. In the afternoons, they took walks in the open air and visited parks to kick around a soccer ball, safe from the dangers of home.

Since the founding of her charity in 1997 in the wake of the sudden deaths of her grandmother, mother and childhood sweetheart, Montanti has shown uncanny skill in rallying support. She has lobbied at the United Nations, written a memoir and built a sprawling network of charitable doctors and professionals.

Her charity says it has taken in children from 50 countries, mostly from Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

She recalls her foray into Iraq after the U.S.-led coalition invasion following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I’ll never forget the burning oil fields,” she said, “And here I was, going in there because I knew that my destiny was to help.”

With the world reopening, she is cautiously optimistic that her charity will again take up its mission unabated.

“When the kids are in that house, it brings me so much joy,” Montanti said while walking her dog down the street to visit her Tanzanian charges. “There, they are not numbers.”

“One Good Thing” is a series that highlights individuals whose actions provide glimmers of joy in hard times — stories of people who find a way to make a difference, no matter how small. Read the collection of stories at

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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