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JSerra Seniors Fund Surgeries for Toddlers in Mexico

Sheltering in place has many of us stir-crazy, but being on lockdown for this length of time for two particular JSerra seniors who will be graduating in two weeks is just what the doctor ordered. Megan Giacobetti and Aiden Brotman, who have spent the final two months of their senior year studying from home, decided to seize an opportunity to take a medical matter into their own hands. The result has been life-changing for two toddlers 1400 miles away.

Giacobetti and Brotman were in the middle of online instruction when an email came through one a teacher, asking: "How would you like to help a baby girl who lives in the poorest part of Mexico get surgery for her cleft lip? If anyone can get this done, it's you two!"

The teacher was right. It didn't take more than that.

The students learned that Estefany, a one-year old who lives in the austere outskirts of Tampico, Mexico, is one of hundreds of children who are known as "los más necesitados" — the most in need. To say her lip and palate were cleft was an understatement. What they saw looked more like a tear from the girl's nose straight to through her top lip — a large slash in her palate that created a gap between the left and right sides of her mouth, leaving a permanently bloody area in the middle of her face.

Estefany is a not alone.

A Catholic charitable foundation called Unión Pro Vida (its U.S. fundraising arm is called Missionary Heart) has been working for the past decade with two select Tampico hospitals and dozens of highly-trained doctors from Mexico and abroad to provide medical care for the area's poorest of the poor. Cleft lip and palate surgeries are only one of their focuses. They also remove malignant tumors from cancer patients, prevent limb amputations through timely surgical intervention, and offer sight-restoring procedures to the blind.

Seeing Estefany's photos, Giacobetti and Brotman were all-in, but they they had to move quickly: they found out that although some patients can wait for months to see if sufficient funds are raised to cover their medical treatments, cleft lip and palate are considered "urgent." Children with severe oral deformities have a very small window of time for surgical repair.

Dental surgeon Ileana Zambrano Garcia, who founded Unión Pro Vida and Missionary Heart, explained: "Children's cognitive capacity for speaking will develop in tandem with their physical capabilities. If a child begins forming speech patterns with a cleft palate, those patterns will forge long-term language mechanisms that they cannot reverse later."

In Estafany's case, this meant they needed funds immediately. The cost for cleft palate surgery thorough Garcia's foundation: $600.

Brotman had an idea. Each year at JSerra about half of the senior class (approximately 150 students) engages in a secret game called "Assassin." Willing participants pay $10 to play. The rules are simple: If you get hit with silly string by another game participant, you're out. No silly string during school hours. No silly string on campus. The last person standing gets the cash.

Due to the quarantine, this year's game was abruptly cancelled. Students were now asking for their $10 back. Brotman and Giacobetti emailed their classmates, giving them the option to get their money back or donate it to Estefany through Missionary Heart. They created a GoFundMe page with her story and photo, and made an appeal on Estefany's behalf.

Their peers did not let them down. The response was awe-inspiring. All 150 students chose to help Estefany. Within three days Aiden and Megan had raised $1600 for a young girl in need.

"JSerra students are really generous. We normally go on a mission trip to Peru twice a year to help the poor. This year's Easter break trip was cancelled due to COVID. We wanted to give our peers the chance to do something in place of that, and Estefany's situation was a no-brainer," said Brotman.

"What Megan and Aiden didn't know," said Zambrano Garcia, "was that right about the time they we reached out to them, another baby, Adrianita, came to us with the same issue."

Overwhelmed by the students' generosity and the amount they raised, Zambrano Garcia decided to use the money to operate on both girls. The surgeries took place back-to-back on the morning of May 15. Both Estefany and Adrianita are doing exceptionally well.

"We are so, so grateful to Megan and Aiden and the senior class from JSerra that they made it possible to help these girls," said Zambrano Garcia. "I never imagined when we met the families in December that we would be able to help them in time. I thank God that JSerra has partnered with us!"