Flying to Inspire Fearlessness and Faith
– By Anna Maldonado
As fate would have it, I coincidentally ran into Nancy Rivard, Founder/President of AAI, on a flight I was working this past July. It was almost 14 years since I had last seen her. I had originally met her on my very first flight as an American Airlines Flight Attendant. We both worked that San Francisco flight together back in the fall of 1999. She made a lasting impression on me, and I never forgot her.
When I saw her again, she mentioned to me that she was organizing a very special trip to San Salvador and needed an Airline Ambassador. She spoke of Lizette, age 14, and little Marcela, age 11. Nancy explained Marcela had been burned very badly and in need of surgery on one of her arms.
At first glance, Marcela seemed like any other child. She had become quite adept at hiding her disability. However, upon closer inspection, you realized the limited movement in her left arm. The much-needed surgery would allow Marcela to lift her arm completely. It would take several surgeries to complete this, and she would be undergoing additional surgery to stretch her skin in her chest area. Her tiny body had the will to grow, but her severely damaged skin would not allow for the growth process.
Lizette was also in need of reconstructive breast surgery. Once she entered her teenage years, only one breast developed. Unfortunately, she has often been ridiculed and bullied because of this.
Both of these girls have been through so much at such a young age. I wondered what sort of physical and emotional condition might these children be experiencing? Am I up for the task at hand? My apprehension was quickly silenced when I witnessed Nancy’s unyielding and compassionate desire to help make this surgical opportunity for the girls a reality.
The surgeries were to be provided by Mending Kids International on July 20, 2013, so about a week after Nancy and I had spoken, I began my journey to get the girls. I traveled from Chicago to San Salvador on July 9, 2013. Lisselot Troconis, Executive Director of Gente Ayudando Gente, would be meeting me at the airport to take me to meet the girls and their families. The families had traveled from rural areas outside of San Salvador to Lisselot’s office where they all patiently awaited my arrival for most of the day. I was eager to meet them as well.
It was an important day because after our meeting none of our lives would ever be the same. When I walked into the office, I was greeted with open arms. Both families were gracious and kindly welcomed me. The girls were shy at first, but minute by minute we began to develop a bond. I found myself becoming very protective of these sweet girls, and I wanted both families to know that I would care for these girls as if they were my very own. I told the girls to be sure to get plenty of rest during the night because we had a long journey ahead of us the following day. They responded with energetic nods of agreement. We were all to meet at the San Salvador Airport at 6am the next morning. What followed was the most meaningful flight of my life so far.
“She is clothed in strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25, NLT).
Our journey was long, and not without difficulty. At some point the girls cried, and so did I. Understandably, tiny Marcela shed the most tears. She missed her mother. However, through her tears she was extraordinarily dignified.
After the novelty of being on an airplane for the first time wore off, the gravity and the uncertainty of our journey began to set into Marcela’s heart. With burns over 80% of her little body, the trip to Los Angeles would provide life-altering surgery at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Surgery for anyone can be overwhelming, but far more so for a little girl in a new and unknown country far away from her family and her mother.
When the first tears began rolling down Marcela’s cheek, I couldn’t immediately find tissues, so I handed her a stack of napkins. What she did next confused me a bit. She took one napkin off the top of the stack and then gently folded the remaining two napkins and placed them into her shiny new purse. I didn’t comprehend why she did that until a couple of minutes later. She continued crying as I thought to myself, why wasn’t she wiping away her tears? Then, little Marcela took the remaining napkin, carefully folded it in half and tore it into two halves. All the while, tears were streaming down her precious face. Finally, at that last moment, she considered her tears. At last I realized that Marcela was using only what she needed and saving the rest of the napkins for later.
These impoverished children are so grateful for the little that they have. I saw how strong and brave these girls were many times throughout our travels. At one point, Lizette seemed determined not to cry at all. She held one napkin up to one of her eyes before a tear even had the chance to fall.
These courageous children taught me not to regret having abundance in life, but to appreciate it and not take anything for granted – even the simplest things in life such as a single napkin.
I will always hold the memory of our time together close to my heart. My hope is this journey will provide Lizette and little Marcela great improvements in their health, and through the power of healing, continue to strengthen their faith and enable them to live without fear. May their futures be filled with confidence, happiness, and of course, much laughter.
By Anna Maldonado