by Ann M. Colford

As a little girl in the Philippines, Charisma felt weak and fainted after the slightest exertion. Doctors diagnosed a serious heart condition requiring open-heart surgery, but the advanced procedure wasn't available in her homeland and her family could not pay for such an expensive treatment abroad. Fortunately, Charisma's doctors knew about a program based in Spokane that helps children receive medical services that otherwise would be beyond their reach. The volunteers at Healing the Children agreed that Charisma was a good candidate for treatment here, so they brought her to Spokane about three years ago.

"She was so weak when she first arrived that she kept passing out," says Shirl Lewis, director of Healing the Children's Inland Northwest Chapter and Charisma's foster mother during her stay in Spokane. "We had to wait at least a month before she was strong enough to have the surgery."

Fortunately, Charisma's treatment was a success. She returned home after about five months and continues to do well. The Lewises just received a note and photo in the mail from the happy and healthy 9-year-old.

"That's the most rewarding part," says Lewis, whose family has hosted 35 children. "They go back home to a whole new life."

Healing the Children matches sick kids from around the world with volunteers -- medical professionals and host families -- who can give them medical treatment unavailable at home. The organization also sponsors medical trips abroad, where a team of doctors and supporting volunteers travel to a remote area and set up a temporary clinic. The teams perform specialized medical procedures from maxillofacial surgery to orthopedics and dental care.

"Nationally, we take an average of 25 teams per year overseas," says Carol Borneman of the national office here in Spokane. "From 1979 to 2003, Healing the Children served 83,505 children. Of those, 6,162 were brought into the US." Included in the total are nearly 2,000 American children who lack insurance, prescription coverage or dental care, she says.

Healing the Children began back in the 1970s when Cris and Gary Emberton of Spokane adopted a baby girl from Korea with serious untreated medical problems. When the frail child lost her battle to survive, the Embertons focused their grief on making sure such children received needed care before it was too late. Cris lined up doctors and other professionals to volunteer their services, hospitals that offered the use of their facilities and host families to give the kids a home-away-from-home during their stay.

Now the organization boasts 13 chapters across the country, utilizing services in 23 states. Healing the Children garnered national attention in 1999 for its service to acid-burn victims in Bangladesh and again in 2002 for arranging the separation of conjoined twins from Guatemala at the UCLA Medical Center. Borneman says the girls continue to do well; they remain in Los Angeles for follow-up therapies and their parents visit from Guatemala whenever they can.

The number of children brought to Spokane for treatment has dropped in recent years due to the overall economic climate and the financial struggles in the local medical community, Lewis says. In other areas, some hospitals have stopped accepting foreign patients in the aftermath of 9/11. But Healing the Children continues to focus on its stated goal: changing the world, one child at a time.

To volunteer or donate, contact Shirl Lewis at 455-7865 or Carol Borneman at 327-4281, or visit

Publication date: 08/05/04

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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