Rotary’s 20th anniversary Gift of Life auction raises $66,500

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GREENFIELD — Robbie Donno just wanted to help out one more child.

Donno in 1973 read about a girl in Uganda who had been attacked by a hyena and who struggled in life because of the scars to her face. He knew a surgeon through his membership in his local Rotary Club, and he asked how their club could help the girl, who had been injured when she was 8 years old.

The girl, who was about 18 by this time, was sent to Australia for reconstructive surgery. After that surgery was a success, the organizers in Uganda asked if Rotary would consider helping treat a child born with a heart defect. Some 33,000 operations on children later, the founder of Gift of Life International encourages Rotary Clubs like Greenfield’s to carry on the culture of compassion started by the willingness of his own club to help a second child in need.

Some 250 people attended the 20th annual Gift of Life Auction Saturday at the Community Life Center, 10612 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. The event typically raises about $50,000 per year toward Gift of Life International and the Riley Hospital for Children Heart Team, making it possible for physicians to travel to developing countries to perform heart surgeries and bring children in need of more complex surgery to Indianapolis. This year, a combination of increased sponsorship, activity in the live and silent auctions, and monetary donations led to a record high total for the event: $66,500, event co-chair Sara Joyner said.

Donno, the founder of Gift of Life International, was the keynote speaker for the event.

Each year, Rotary, an international service organization, spearheads Gift of Life, which works to help children all over the world receive treatment for heart disease. This effort includes identifying people, from newborn to young adults, in need of treatment and bringing them to hospitals for surgery.

The Rotary Club of Greenfield has a special relationship with the Riley Hospital for Children, and the Gift of Life Riley Heart team has performed some 465 heart surgeries since its inception in 1999, said Dr. Stephanie Kinnaman, a Rotarian and a member of the team.

Last year, 51 children were operated on by the team, she said.

Tony Campbell was the Rotary district governor when he learned about Gift of Life and brought the idea to the state. Since then, young people needing treatment for heart disease have been identified by the group in Iraq, Jordan, Uganda, and the Ivory Coast. The group has taken more than two dozen trips in 20 years to identify and treat children with heart defects.

Joyner enjoyed learning about the history of the organization, she said. With a small change in focus — from helping a child after an animal attack to helping children with heart defects, an amazing, sustainable program was created, she said.

“When I see the impact of Gift of Life, I wonder, ‘How did this miracle happen?’” Donno said, adding he’d like to see Gift of Life help 100,000 children in the next 20 years. “Be generous. At the end of the day, there’s some kid that’ll be lucky, a grandfather who has more time with his grandchildren. … The decisions you make change the world.”