By Liz Skoczylas
In April, Katie Castro suffered the worst loss a mother can imagine - the death of her infant daughter, Lily. Now, just five months later, Castro has been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Little Angel Foundation and two Chautauqua County missionaries are working to build a new hospital in Honduras. Pictured, from left, are: Bely Salazar, vice president of the nonprofit organization Little Angle Foundation in Honduras; Dr. Young, chief of Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Escuela Hospital; Christian Perry, missionary; Katie Castro, missionary.
Lily was born in a private hospital in Honduras on March 19 to Castro and her husband, Javier, who were serving as missionaries in the country.
"Something that we were unaware of during the pregnancy is that she had multiple birth defects," Castro said.
Lily was born with spina bifida, a Type II Chiari Malformation in her brain, a missing kidney and an imperforate anus. Although she had immediate surgery after she was born and was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Honduras, her condition continued to worsen. Two weeks after she was born, Castro and her husband transported Lily via air ambulance to Texas Children's Hospital, because she was not receiving a high enough level of care in Honduras. Lily died five days later, on April 8.
Being from Bemus Point, Castro and her family returned to the area to put Lily to rest. Following the funeral, Castro and her husband returned to Honduras with $2,000 that had been raised in Lily's honor. Castro met with the doctors who had cared for her daughter while in Honduras and asked them how they would be able to use the money.
Little did Castro know the death of her daughter could mean life for thousands of other children in Honduras.
Escuela Hospital in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is the public hospital of Honduras. It was built in 1969 to accommodate 7,000 births per year. Currently, it is handling 18,000 births per year, with an expected growth to 20,000 births this year.
There are two NICU units for the entire country of Honduras. One has six beds. The other has 70.
"When I walked in and only saw 70 beds for the entire country, I was already blown away," Castro said. "But, I was also taken over by the sights and smells. ... There were no diapers on the babies. There were five or six in a bassinet together, which (can cause) infection. There was no antibacterial gel. The nurses didn't have gloves on. It was a nightmare to walk into."
Available statistics show 40 percent of the deaths in the NICU are due to infection. According to Castro, 40 percent of infant deaths in Honduras could be eliminated immediately if the right donations were made.
Additionally, 56 percent of newborns die waiting for immediate care, due to a lack of space in the NICU. This then increases the risk of infection, which increases the chances of death.
According to doctors, there are 30 deaths per month in the NICU. There are an additional 30 deaths per month outside the unit, as babies who are unable to get into the unit due to lack of space die.
Castro's first mission trip to Honduras was when she was just 14. At the age of 17, she began going for longer trips to teach English. Two years later, at age 19, she began bringing mission teams of college students to the country for the summer.
Castro moved to Honduras when she was 21, and began an organization with at-risk youth in a violent neighborhood of the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
"We have another daughter who was born before Lily," Castro said. "When she was born, we said, 'Our priorities have changed. We can't go and work with gang members every day, knowing that there's a good chance we won't come back home and leaving a small child behind.'"
Castro and her husband made the decision to move back to the United States. However, since her husband was from Honduras, the couple was faced with a long process to gain residency.
"It took us a year and a half to be able to move back," Castro explained. "In the meantime, Lily was conceived, and Lily was born. The timing of it was so incredible. Our first child was born and we decided to move back. (Then there was) the whole pregnancy. This child is born, we're only a few months away from moving back at this point. She passes away. The idea for this foundation is born. And I'm back here all of a sudden. If I was back in Honduras, I couldn't do this."
In May, Christian Perry traveled to Honduras for a mission trip for underprivileged youth. Although he is from Frewsburg and Castro is a Bemus Point native, the two had never crossed paths until this past May.
Since the death of Lily, Castro had met with several doctors in Honduras to continue her mission. One of Lily's doctors - Dr. Alejandro Young, chief of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Tegucigalpa, Honduras - had founded the Little Angel Foundation, in order to help the underprivileged NICU. Upon learning about the foundation, Castro and her husband immediately signed on as the foundation's U.S. ambassadors, pledging to help with fundraising efforts.
It was on a tour of the NICU that Castro and Perry - a 21-year-old senior architecture student at Alfred State College- crossed paths for the first time.
"At the time, I had no idea who Katie was, and I had no idea about the hospital. I went down there only for the purpose of these boys and girls," Perry said. "I remember going, and I had no idea what to expect. Still, to this day, it was one of the worst feelings that my heart could ever endure. It was a lot to see, a lot to handle, and a lot of information to take in. I knew that I wanted to get involved. At that point, I didn't even know what I could do."
After meeting Castro and the other doctors at the hospital, Perry decided that instead of putting together a theoretical building design as his senior thesis at Alfred State, he would design a new infant care hospital in Honduras.
"I've always wondered, 'Why am I good at architecture? Is this really what I'm supposed to be doing?'" Perry said. "I've never been so sure before in my life, looking at this doctor and saying, 'I know this is a dream, but I want to design this hospital,' and him saying, 'The dream starts today. We're dreamers.'"
TURNING A DREAM TO REALITY
After his return to the United States, Perry began lining up contacts and selling T-shirts to raise money for his cause.
"In my mind, and Dr. Young - who I knew well - and the vice president of the foundation, not one of us three believed Christian when he said he was going to build a hospital," Castro said. "We didn't know him. We didn't know his reputation. We just thought, 'Here comes this dreamer who is going to be passionate about this today, tomorrow he's going to go home, it's not going to happen.' We were total skeptics."
After moving back to the United States with her family, Castro met with Perry and learned of the work he had been doing since he had returned from his mission trip. However, she was still skeptical and didn't mention the progress to Dr. Young or the Little Angel Foundation board.
The second time the pair met, Perry presented Castro with an address book of people and organizations interested in the cause of building a new hospital. Seeing Perry's work, Castro sent an email to the board with an update.
"The third time we got together, he said, 'I'm ready to contact corporately," Castro said. "'So, we need a documentary. We need some legit film.' So, I shoot the real email, saying, 'OK, we're coming down. We're buying tickets, we're coming down, we need to shoot this documentary.' But, I feel a little bit of hesitation still from the board of directors, because they haven't experienced what I have."
A week before the pair left to shoot the documentary, Perry met a four-time Emmy-winning film director who agreed to put the documentary together after the footage was shot.
"The biggest task for the week, in our minds, was to convince the board of directors that this was real," Castro said. "That we were going to do it."
Perry brought an 8-foot banner to the business meeting with the board with his business plan. Within a three-hour time frame, it was on-board with Perry's plan.
"To bring to a summary of that meeting, there was a point where all of us stopped talking, and the only words that were said was, 'We're really in the middle of a miracle,'" Castro said. "To think that from one child's death, so much hope could be born for generation after generation of babies born in Honduras."
From that point, Castro and Perry were introduced by Young to Lempira Rodas, the son of an ex-Honduran president, and a financial giant in the country.
"I wouldn't be wrong to say he probably owns at least 15 percent of the country," Castro said.
In the same trip, Casto and Perry met Rodas, who also got onboard with the project. Rodas agreed to show the two some pieces of land he owned in the city.
"It's a very urban city, so there isn't just pieces of land in the middle of the city that would be accessible to the poor," Castro said. "So, we knew already we were in a tough spot when we tried to buy land."
Upon meeting Rodas and visiting the land, Perry and Castro quickly realized the costs would be outside their realm of possibility. Unable to reach an immediate agreement, the two returned to their hotel, only to receive a call from Rodas later that day, requesting another meeting.
At the second meeting, Rodas offered a piece of land for the hospital for $1.5 million.
"A lot of money? Yes," Perry said. "Is it possible? Very."
Castro and Perry have been back in the United States for less than two weeks, and have already hit the ground running to raise $1.5 million.
As a personal gift from Rodas, he is going to cover the excavation of the land at no cost and cover the cost of an underground parking ramp. Additionally, he said he would ensure the project receives the construction permit from the government, which could have taken up to five years, had Rodas not agreed to interfere. He also owns the renewable energy business in Honduras, and promised a deal on energy to the hospital. A friend of Rodas also owns the water company, and has promised discounted water.
If it appears Castro and Perry will not meet their goal, they have until Jan. 1 to pull out of the agreement with Rodas. However, if they do not pull out by the deadline, Rodas is expecting a payment of $1.5 million by March 26.
"We walked out of that meeting knowing the biggest thing in our lives just happened," Castro said. "We went down to document a film and get a board of directors onboard. We came back to the U.S. with a deal for a piece of land, to start construction a year from now, hypothetically."
The pair is now in the process of creating the "Friends of Little Angels Foundation." They have identified the current needs of the existing public hospital, and are working to address those needs through donations. Additionally, Castro and Perry are working to raise the $1.5 million for the land in Honduras to build the new hospital.
"What we are aiming for as a foundation, through both of our focuses - construction and meeting immediate needs - is to give these babies a fighting chance at survival," Castro said. "All they need is a little bit of assistance. We can't let their poverty dictate their survival, just because their parents were poor."
Already, Castro and Perry are selling bracelets for $5 each, and T-shirts for $20 each to support their cause. Additionally, monetary donations and donations of items such as antibacterial soap and gel, baby blankets, diapers, preemie and newborn hats and clothes, bottles, sheets and disposable gloves can be made to St. Timothy's Lutheran Church, PO Box 9190 or 3748 Route 430, Bemus Point, NY 14712.
Castro and Perry have also set up a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BeTheChangeLAF, or can be reached via email at Bethechange.LAF@gmail.com. Castro can be reached by phone at 969-6816. A website is coming soon.
"A child died, which is the most intense suffering and grief that I probably will ever experience," Castro said. "Five months later, hope is born for millions of babies in Honduras. And it's not through me. And it's not through Christian. There is something divine happening here that we can't explain. We're not even knocking on doors, and doors are opening. ... We went down to film a video, and we ended up with a $1.5 million piece of land. And that's not what it's worth. It's worth like $12 million. We are so convinced that we are in the midst of a miracle. Even though that $1.5 million is scary for April, we are confident that it's going to happen."