Born with a life threatening case of scoliosis, Kerisa Guild, 7, traveled 2,500 miles to stay with a Mount Vernon family for a severe spinal surgery she wasn’t able to receive in her home country of Belize.
Kerisa is one of nearly 500 children helped by the Belize Children’s Project, according to the founder Eugene Verdu, of Belleville.
This year, the program reached its 40th anniversary with the Belleville Rotary Club providing orthopedic care to children in need from the Central American country.
The nonprofit began its partnerships with Rotary and Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis because of the initial work done by Verdu. “I used to be a volunteer and teach in high school in Belize in 1961-62. As I was living there, there was a child that needed some orthopedic care.”
Because of a number of factors including population size, lack of resources, and finances, the treatment many children need is not accessible there in Belize, Verdu said.
Verdu explained he and a family in Belize City paired up to transport children on their own to and from Shriners Hospital. “The program progressed for two or three years, and I went to Rotary District (6510), and they accepted it as part of their supporting international program,” he said.
One of the things that makes the program so great is it’s totally volunteer. Every dollar that is donated for that program goes to helping the children.
Eugene Verdu, founder of the Belize Children’s Project
Currently with her host family, The Settles of Mount Vernon, Kerisa is recovering from her second surgery. Kevin and Cheryl Settle took in Kerisa last year when she had her first operation in October 2016, and again this year for a follow-up.
“(The doctors) kind of put a cage around her spine to straighten it, and they screwed the bottom of her spine into her pelvis. That was the follow-up surgery this year — they took those screws out,” Cheryl Settle said.
Responding with shy head nods, Kerisa acknowledged she feels better since her surgeries.
Though she could walk and run before the surgeries, the Settles said she stands straighter and taller since having them.
“Last year when she went home after surgery, she had a full brace (around her torso) and she wore that for two months when she went home. When we picked her up this year, it was like — wow — we could actually see what the surgery did last year; it was a great success,” Kevin Settle said.
During both of her stays with the Settles, Kerisa attended primary school in Mount Vernon District 80, although not all districts accommodate visiting students, Kevin Settle said.
“Both (myself and Cheryl), being former educators, feel that school is very important, and one of the things we wanted to make sure (Kerisa) experienced was the American schools. The Primary Center although is large — 700 students K-3 — it’s such an atmosphere of closeness and unity,” Kevin Settle said.
“When she started in school here (last year), her mom told us in Belize they have to take tests to determine if they’re going to the next grade or not, and she had missed at least six weeks of school, so we had to do all that catching up,” Cheryl Settle added. “If she were home, she’d be watching TV half the day, and that’s just not good for a child.”
In addition to providing Kerisa with education, the Settles offer all the comforts of being in an American home including food, clothes and entertainment.
“We basically treat her as a daughter — that’s what we do,” Kevin Settle said. “We wanted to make sure that when she came, we provided her a welcoming home, obviously a safe environment and a loving environment … (and) contact with her mother because we want her to feel at home, too.”
Speaking for the timid child, Cheryl Settle said Kerisa misses her 9-year-old brother back home in Belize the most. Kerisa remained silent, although engaged, while her host parents did the talking — until the subject of food came up.
“What’s one of your favorite foods you like to make here?” Kevin Settle asked Kerisa. Without delay, she spouted out, “Cornbread!” and the family laughed. “We sent the mix boxes home with her last year,” Cheryl Settle said.
Serving as chaperones for Kerisa on the trip back to Belize in December 2016, the Settles got an opportunity to meet their Belizean daughter’s family and home.
“Her family could not be more appreciative; you really feel like you’ve done a good thing,” Cheryl Settle said.
The Settles decided to take on the responsibility of being a host family when they retired and their own children had grown up and left the house.
“I’ve been a Rotarian for 20 years, and when I would go to district events, they would always talk about the (Belize Children’s Project) and it was always something that intrigued me because it’s really life changing for (the children),” Kevin Settle said. “So we decided we would do it and we were so happy that we did.”
According to Cheryl Settle, anyone who’s willing to dedicate time to a child can be a host family for one. “It takes some time, but … you just have to care about children and be willing to spend the time to nurture them,” she said.
When she’s not at school, playing or cooking cornbread, The Settles take Kerisa to visit other Rotary clubs in the district in order to spread news about the program.
“I like to get (Kerisa) in front of some other Rotary groups so they can see what the children’s program is … because when people see what the project does, I mean actually sees it, it just brings support for the program,” Kevin Settle said.
According to Verdu, the program has stayed strong over the decades because of “love and charity.”
“One of the things that makes the program so great is it’s totally volunteer. Every dollar that is donated for that program goes to helping the children. There is no paid staff — no one is paid to do anything — there’s no gas reimbursement for driving children back and forth to the hospital. And I think that’s what keeps the program going,” Verdu said.
Don Barlow, of Columbia, a longtime director of the program, served as power of attorney for the Belizean children until 1998.
“You OK who they stay with ... and you have to approve all the operations,” Barlow said. “But when you’re signing documents approving surgery on children you’ve never even laid eyes on — and much more serious operations like spine cases especially scare the heck out of you — there’s a lot of responsibility.”
For more information about the Belize Children’s Project, or to inquire about being a host family, contact Tim Gutknecht, president of the project committee for the Belleville Rotary Club at 618-281-7626 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.