INDIANAPOLIS — Johanna Algodon wound through the crowd of adults in sparkling dresses and pressed suits, her pigtails swinging.
The 4-year-old looked utterly at ease, whether grabbing the hand of Rotarian Tony Campbell or demanding a hug from Dr. Stephanie Kinnaman, the leader of Indiana’s Gift of Life program. After all, they’d been the ones to make it possible for her to come to the United States, who helped organize the open heart surgery that saved her life.
She and her mother, Carmina Algodon, spent the past few weeks visiting with family in the United States, but they made a stop on Saturday at the 18th annual Gift of Life Auction, which raised more than $50,000 for efforts to send teams to developing countries and to bring children to the United States for life-saving heart surgeries.
The event brought together hundreds of supporters who applauded Johanna and the program that made it possible for her to attend the event, which serves as the biggest Rotary fundraiser of the year for Gift of Life.
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As she posed for a picture with Kinnaman, another auction-goer admired Johanna’s glittery red skirt. Johanna obliged her admirers with a gleeful twirl.
It’s a treat for both Algodon and Johanna to visit with the people who made it possible for Johanna to get the surgery she needed to thrive. They say they’ve formed lasting bonds with people like Susanna Combs, at whose house they stayed during this latest visit, and Kinnaman.
More than 90 percent of children with congenital heart defects are born in countries without adequate health care options, said Gift of Life International CEO Rob Raylman, who spoke to the crowd gathered at the Community Life Center on east Washington Street Saturday. Gift of Life bridges that gap, bringing children to the U.S. to receive care and sending teams out to developing countries to help train their doctors and nurses as well, he said.
While Gift of Life International has sent teams to more than 70 countries across the globe, Indiana’s Gift of Life team has focused on a few areas, including Uganda and Amman, Jordan, said Sara Joyner, who helped coordinate Saturday’s fundraiser. The partnership between Gift of Life and Greenfield’s Rotary club has also brought about 67 children to the United States to undergo surgery in the last two decades, she said. All told, the group has helped about 367 children and their families, she said.
Algodon first learned of Gift of Life when a team came to the Philippines to perform simple procedures on children with heart defects. The team couldn’t help Johanna then, but her mother kept the name, Gift of Life, tucked away like a charm. Her aunt and uncle, both missionaries, knew Combs through their work, and they discovered Indiana’s Gift of Life team through her, Kinnaman said.
Algodon calls many of the people responsible for helping to save her daughter’s life her aunts and uncles; it felt natural to look on the local Gift of Life team members as her family when they were so instrumental in fixing both hers and Johanna’s broken hearts.
Having Johanna and her mother present at Saturday’s event underscored the significance of bidding on the auction items, as every dollar pledged will go toward helping children just like Johanna, said Monica Kowaleski, event co-chair.
Like many of the Rotarians, Kowaleski has spent time with this year’s Gift of Life recipients. They are more than patients; they are family.
She went with Johanna and Carmina to see Disney on Ice recently, cheered alongside them as the cast of familiar characters skated across the ice.
“It’s a memory we will have forever,” she said. “And when they go home, we’ll have social media to stay in touch.”
It’s a routine Kowaleski knows well. She grew particularly close to the youngest child ever brought to Riley Hospital through the Indiana Gift of Life team, Mira Llalloshi, who was only 6 months old at the time. Five years later, Kowaleski is still watching Mira grow up in Kosovo on Facebook.
But on Saturday, it was Johanna that Kowaleski and the crowd were watching as the little girl giggled into the microphone and said, “Thank you for fixing my heart.”
The Greenfield Rotary Club and the heart team at Riley Hospital for Children bring children with congenital heart defects to the Indianapolis children’s hospital for life-saving surgeries. The local branch of Gift of Life international has brought more than 300 children to Indiana for heart surgeries. Some of the most recent recipients include:
Johanna Algodon, 4
Age at time of surgery: 3
Home country: Philippines
Mattithia Ettien, 4
Age at time of surgery: 2
Home country: Ivory Coast
Adyan Aljawadeya, 4
Age at time of surgery: 3
Home country: Iraq
The Greenfield Rotary Club supports Gift of Life International, an organization that provides children born with congenital heart defects with life-saving surgeries, each year with its annual Gift of Life auction. The event raises roughly $50,000 each year, officials said, through a combination of live auction, silent auction and raffle items.
Gift of Life has a two-pronged approach to treating children born with heart defects. It sends teams of doctors and nurses to countries where defects cannot be treated, but it also brings children needing complicated procedures to the United States.
Indiana’s Gift of Life has brought about 15 children to Riley Hospital for Children for heart surgeries; altogether, its team members have treated about 310 children across the globe, including in Amman, Jordan, and Uganda.