Excerpt From At Your Service – My Story by Ian Lizarraga

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Story written by Ian Lizarraga

I was about three years old when Uncle Gene first helped get me to the US for medical care.

I’ve known him longer than I can remember. He will always be my Superman! Without him, my life would have run a different course. Thanks to him, I now teach my own children to look past all the challenges and look for life’s opportunities, using him as an example.

When I was a kid with a disability, I was always told I wouldn’t be able to do much with the restrictions I had. Even though I came from a family that still lived well, even within those ranks, the expectations of me were not as high as they could have been. I was treated with kid gloves. Uncle Gene was tenacious with his expectations.

My first impressions of the US were extremely positive. People were all giants! They were confident and clean and well-dressed. It was like I had been taken to a grand show, and the actors were focused only on me. The flight attendants pinned the Delta Airline wings to my shirt and introduced me to the pilots. They were like Ken dolls or superheroes. And when we arrived in St. Louis and got off the plane, all these people were waiting for us. The Shriners were there, wearing their tassels. Of course, Uncle Gene was there. Everyone was so incredibly kind to me.

We were shuttled off into what seemed to me were beautiful cars driving on paved roads. These are things I remembered as a child, how big and grand everything was. And how happy they all were. I was crying. It was sensory overload!

My early memories of the Shriners hospital were, again, of all these superheroes. The hospital was so grand, and I saw things I never imagined seeing. We had no TV (in 1981) where I came from. Even the Sears catalogs we had didn’t show this type of infrastructure in these buildings. We walked into the Shriners hospital and were just flooded with positive energy and wonderful people.

My mother and the others also had never been to the United States. It was a new sensation for them too. The escalators and elevators were so new. I remember my mom and aunt standing in this elevator and asking, “Where is this box taking us?”

I remember going to Dick and Honsie’s house for the first time and was so impressed. There were tables with metal trim, something I had never seen in Belize. Everything was shinier, like glass doors, compared to wood back home. Shag carpet. Television in the big box. I was blown away by that.

I do remember the first surgery. The first thing the doctors did was extend my Achilles tendon. I remember waking up. Shriners did something (I think they still do) where, when you woke up from surgery, you were surrounded by gifts donated by corporations and individuals. Something, again, that we’d never seen. There was a game called Simon Says, where you were supposed to remember a sequence of lights. I also remember an electronic Battleship game. The toys I was used to were wooden things, more old-school toys. It was so different being around all these electronic toys and games that needed lots of batteries!

Through the years, I took several trips to the US. I don’t remember exactly how many trips I made, but it was a lot. I stopped going when I was thirteen or fourteen, when I quit growing. The last surgery came after I had some setbacks. The goal was to help me walk upright. They had to break both femurs for me to be able to spread open my feet and then extend my left foot so I could stretch it like normal. These were painful operations. The aftercare was so long. I was in a cast for about eight months and then went back to the hospital. I can’t compare Shriners with other hospitals, thank God. That’s a good thing. The doctors seemed so collaborative.

For me, they would have a long roll of paper on the floor. They would paint the bottoms of my feet and then make me walk on the paper. The doctors would analyze my steps and discuss what they would need to do next. And then I remember getting the cast taken off and going to the physical therapist afterward. When I was ten, I remember my first girlfriend at the hospital. Boys were in A Ward, and girls were in B Ward. She would come to meet me, or I would meet her. I remember the auditorium and all the positive interactions that would take place there.

There was nothing about that hospital that was negative at any point. As a kid, I almost didn’t want to go home. That’s how beautiful a place it is. But I was lucky. So many children in Belize grow up in poverty. My aunt and uncle own a battery manufacturing company in Belize, and they took me in and looked after me, so my mother could go back to work. I ended up living with them until I was nineteen. So, I was fortunate in that sense, coming back to a lovely home and loving family.

There was positivity in my life everywhere. I never saw my disability as a liability, except occasionally at school. I was a chubby kid with a cast. Sometimes a kid would make a snide comment. But, beyond that, I never felt a time when my disability was overwhelmingly negative.

For that, I always compliment my mom, my aunt, and the entire Mena family (Joe, Edith, Joe Allen, Bryan, and Emile), Uncle Victor, and Aunt Chata for all the encouragement they provided throughout the years. So, maybe my experience was a little different than most people’s.

And, importantly, I’ll always credit Uncle Gene for finding me great homes and families to stay with. I always felt safe, motivated, and loved. The impression I still got was everyone knew Gene Verdu was going to be checking up on me. They did not want to let him down.

My mother, Hilda, was there front and center from the very beginning, along with my Aunt Dalila (“Tia Dai”). They were amazing in how they devoted so much time and energy, stopping everything in their lives to take care of me and get me the help I needed.

Dick and Honsie, from Belleville, were the first host family that took me in. They had a son, George. They took me in and helped with post-surgery care. They even helped place me in a local school, Abraham Lincoln Junior High in Belleville, in seventh grade. I remember they would even stand outside in the snow with me while I waited for the little bus to take me, in my wheelchair, off to school. It was just a series of people in a network that looked after all aspects of my life. After me, they apparently felt the good being done for one child, so why not keep helping other children? They did!

As the program grew, Rotary Club in Belmopan became more involved. Now there are well over 400 children who have been helped. And these kids now have their own kids, and the multi-generational network continues to grow. So many people have been impacted by this program. It now has a life of its own.

If you go to fundraising events, the mayor and counsels from various countries around the world are there. They all are helping to collect money for this program for these kids. It’s mindboggling how it continues to grow and not lose any momentum, a real testament to Uncle Gene and all the others who shared his passion.

It’s difficult for people from a first-world country like the US to imagine what one man like Gene can do for a country like Belize. He has been coming here for decades upon decades. Every time he’s touched something, it’s been to make somebody else’s life better. Now, we’re talking about generations of Belizeans that have been impacted in some way by this man. Someone from Toronto or New York would have a difficult time understanding how that’s even possible, but it really is. Not only was it his time donation, but he did things with a relentless approach. He wouldn’t tolerate “no” for an answer.

Maybe not so much today in Belize, but back in the early 1970s, the answer “no” was the norm when it came to trying new things or finding funding for new projects. “No, we can’t do that here” or “No, that’s impossible” were responses I’m sure he encountered at every single turn. But it never dissuaded him in any way. He approached roadblocks with such positive energy, even joy. By simply walking into a room, he changed its energy level. It was an incredible thing to witness. The giving away of his car or his home, people always coming in and out. Not only did he manage all the clinics and coordinated things in the US, but he also made sure things were still moving forward here in Belize as well.

Back then, communications weren’t anything near the way they are here today. It was a time when you would say “Belize,” and no one knew what it meant. Belize is the only country ever to change its name (from British Honduras) and not tell anyone! Who would know?

So, Uncle Gene went about raising money for kids in a country that most of the world didn’t know existed. He must have been such a pain in the butt to some people, yet he always did things in such a kind way. People he dealt with said he could be so persistent, but with such a great heart.

I’m very excited about this book. It’s not only a story of a great man in Uncle Gene, but also a beautiful tribute to the collaboration between citizens of the United States and Belize.

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