A child’s plea for help asking for “God and all merciful people to help me getting prosthetics” forever changed Elissa Montanti’s thinking and her mission in life. Those words, written in a 1996 letter by a Bosnian boy who had stepped on a landmine and lost both arms and a leg, moved American medical technician Elissa Montanti into action to help child victims of the 1990s war in Bosnia & Herzegovina in the former Yugoslavia.
Ms. Montanti, a native of Staten Island, New York, was in her 20s when the deaths of her mother and grandparents within a short span of time had left her stricken with grief. In an effort to overcome the impact of her losses, she reached out to help child victims of Bosnia’s civil war. She approached the then United Nations Ambassador from Bosnia with an offer to send school supplies and toys to children there. When the Ambassador, Mr. Muhamed Sacirbey, responded by reading her the young amputee boy’s letter, Elissa quickly comprehended the far more urgent needs of the children in war-torn Bosnia. She immediately began to recruit airlines, hospitals, physicians and prosthetic companies to donate their services. The writer of the letter, young Kenan Malkic, along with his mother, soon arrived at JFK Airport. Both were welcomed into Elissa’s home. During a four- month stay in the U.S., Kenan received two new arms, a new leg and a new life.
Soon after, Elissa founded the non-profit, non-partisan Global Medical Relief Fund (GMRF) for Children, whose mission is to aid children who are missing or have lost the use of limbs or eyes, have been severely burned, or have been injured due to war, natural disaster or illness. A 501c3 organization, GMRF is supported entirely by private donations and grants. Since its founding by Ms. Montanti in 1997, GMRF has brought more than 100 children to the U.S. from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia for treatment, surgery and prosthetic limb and eye fittings from a list of countries that includes Bosnia, China, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Mexico, Nepal, Niger, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. The maimed and injured children come from countries or regions that can offer only minimal medical care, poorly fitted prostheses, or none at all.
To use her words, Elissa has brought together a unique team that “makes miracles happen,” including the Shriners Hospitals for Children, which provide surgery, prosthetics and rehabilitation, Long Island Jewish Hospital, John Hopkins University Hospital, the Long Island Plastic Surgery Group, Winthrop University Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and Ocular Prosthetics, Inc.
Elissa says that each child helped by GMRF becomes an “ambassador” who can return home not only with a healed, mended body and new hope for life, but also an experience of “America’s best.” Witnessing the human suffering during visits to Bosnia, Iraq and Haiti confirmed to Elissa that charity is so much bigger than one person. “Healing wounds, easing pain and putting back together a broken child is its own reward,” she says. “What more important mission is there than aiding innocent, victimized children?”
Elissa’s personal passions include the love of animals, music, painting and poetry and has won recognition from the American Poetry Society. She has worked with Tiny Tim, Pat Cooper Jim Dawson and Seth David Walter. Recently, she has collaborated with Dawson/Walter to create the moving anthem for her foundation.