The young girl walked on her knees, the only way she could get around because of a deformity in one of her legs.
There seemed little hope that Wubalem Nigatu, who came from a remote village in Ethiopia, would walk properly.
But when a relative of hers asked a Maltese man on a trip to Africa whether he could procure some special shoes for her it was not only the spur for her eventual rehabilitation but also for numerous other children like her.
The man, Saviour Galea, a 39-year-old accounts teacher, realised that surgical intervention could save the girl from more suffering than a pair of shoes. His assistance to Wubalem eventually led to the setting up of a foundation with another Maltese, Emmanuel Portelli, 66, a retired skilled worker.
The Heal and Teach foundation now helps children with disabilities get the simple medical interventions they need.
The two men first met in 2013 during a visit to Africa with the late Fr George Grima, who had founded the Jesus in Thy Neighbour missionary movement. The two have been back to Ethiopia and Kenya every year on their own initiative, eventually setting up the foundation inspired by Wubalem.
Their first idea was to fly the girl for surgery in Malta but they did not manage. Mr Grima and Mr Portelli then learnt of the Cure Ethiopia Children’s Hospital that was hosting an English surgeon specialised in such conditions.
Over the past two years Wubalem has been back and forth between her home and the hospital several times. And now she can walk on both feet.
She became the first of many to be included in the foundation’s database of children with a disability that is shared with specialised surgeons and doctors across the globe who visit Kenya or Ethiopia from time to time to carry out such interventions.
These children were born with, or suffer from, a variety of conditions such as clubfeet, cleft lip or palate, hydrocephalus, broken bones and face tumours, among others. In Europe, action is usually taken immediately on such cases – some children would only require something as simple as a plaster cast.
However, in these remote African villages children tend to grow into adulthood with deformities that worsen as they age, often hidden at home by their parents. But following the intervention they even start going to school and other children stop bullying them.
The foundation facilitates access to hospitals and this sometimes requires flying them over from one African country to another. It sponsors transport, lodging and meals.
In Ethiopia, children are seen to at NGO hospitals such as Cure Ethiopia Children’s Hospital, Nordic Medical Centre and Dr Rick Hodes Clinic, where they receive free consultation, X-rays, treatment, surgery and follow-up. In Kenya, they are taken to Cure Kenya Children’s’ Hospital or Tenwek Mission Hospital.
But the work of the two Maltese men does not stop here. They introduce children to information technology by making donations to schools of laptops, TVs and educational material.
The foundation has also built a school library and kindergarten teachers are introduced to the Montessori teaching methods by Mr Galea.
Meanwhile, Mr Portelli carries out maintenance at the schools and elsewhere. He recently sealed a well that supplies water to 30 children at a home.
What keeps them going?
For Mr Portelli it does not feel as if their work is a drop in the ocean, because helping to change the life of even one child is all worth the effort. He himself spent his childhood at a children’s home and as he grew older he always wanted to give something back to society.
For Mr Galea, the results keep him from giving up, especially knowing that all these people lack is money to pay for transport.
Every little helps. Mr Galea and Mr Portelli would welcome skilled workers, nurses and doctors to join them, as long as they are committed to the cause.
During their trips they also carry small items of pharmaceutical and medical equipment such as pulse metres and stethoscopes, which they pass on to NGO hospitals and children’s homes.
More information about the next trip, or how you could help out, can be found on www.healandteach.org or on the Facebook page called Heal and Teach Foundation. The email is: email@example.com.
Donations can also be made by bank transfer, cheque or SMS donation. The bank account details are: Heal and Teach Foundation account at Bank of Valletta; account number 4002515656-2; bank BIC VALLMTMT; Iban MT06 VALL 2201 3000 0000 4002 5156 562. Cheques can be made payable to Heal and Teach Foundation and sent to 107, Edgar Bernard Street, Gżira. Send your name, address, e-mail and mobile phone number so that the foundation can acknowledge the donation through a receipt.
Donations of €4.66 can be made by SMS on 5061 8087, € 6.99 on 5061 8942 and €11.65 on 5061 9297.
A charity shop is also open on Wednesday and Saturday between 9.30am and 1pm at 107 Edgar Bernard Street Gżira.
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