2016-06-30
She has been called “The Saint of Staten Island.” Ten years ago, Elissa Montanti read a letter from a child on the other side of the world that changed her life--for good.

The letter was a plea for medical help from Kenan Malkic, then 12 years old, who had lost his leg and both arms when, playing soccer, he stepped on a landmine near his home in Bosnia.

Montanti had worked on a fund-raiser for Bosnian children and wanted to do more. She was in the office of former U.N. Bosnian Ambassador Mohamed Sacirbey when the ambassador showed her Kenan’s letter. Montanti immediately found her calling. She began enlisting airlines, hospitals, and a prosthetic manufacturer to donate their services. The boy and his mother came to stay at Elissa's home in Staten Island, N.Y. as he had surgeries and received prosthetic limbs.

But Montanti didn’t stop there. She went to Bosnia and, after a tour of hospitals and orphanages, she brought another child--and then another--to the U.S. for treatment. She founded the Global Medical Relief Fund (GMRF), a nonprofit that works to get free medical help for children hurt or maimed in war or natural disasters. In ten years, GMRF has helped 60 children from Bosnia, El Salvador, Liberia, Mexico City, Niger, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

“Why do I do this?” Montanti said. “Because it is the right thing to do. How can I not do it? I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Montanti has made several dangerous trips to Iraq and is currently working to get travel visas for three Iraqi children from the same family. “The youngest is seven and lost both legs up to his torso,” Montanti said. “None of them can walk. They have no crutches, they have no wheelchair, they have no home, they have no nothing.”  

But they have Montanti, and the cadre of volunteers she coordinates around the country and around the world. Trying to bring war-zone kids to the States can be a long and discouraging process. “I always succeed,” Montanti says.

Montanti long ago gave up her job to work GMRF’s two phone lines fulltime. “It’s 24-7,” she said. “My husband, God bless him, we live very modestly.” The couple have no children of their own, but many of the children they help stay with them during their treatment. Kenan, now 23 and attending college in the U.S., lives with Montanti and speaks on behalf of the fund. She calls him “my little miracle” and says his determination inspires her.

On Nov. 16 of this year, “To Walk Without Fear,” a documentary film about Kenan, Montanti, and GMRF, premiered at the United Nations. The film was made by Montanti’s nephew, and she hopes it will raise awareness for the plight of injured children everywhere.  This inspiring 70-minute film is available for purchase through www.globmed.org.

“I just try to do the best I can, and I ask God for guidance to help me,” she says.

To learn more about Global Relief Medical Fund, click here.

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