By Paula Katinas
CONEY ISLAND — They’re all heart!
Members of a business group opened their hearts — and their wallets — to save the life of an 11-year-old girl from El Salvador in desperate need of surgery.
The Verrazano Rotary Club paid for Brenda Rivas and her mother, Yemmy Rivas, to travel from El Salvador to Italy so that Brenda could undergo open heart surgery at the hands of a doctor who donated his services for free.
Brenda suffered from a congenital heart malformation. The operation was performed by Dr. Giancarlo Crupi, chief pediatric cardiac surgeon at the Ospedali Riuniti Di Bergamo in Italy.
“A child’s life needed to be saved. We help people who come to us for help,” said Rotary Club member Francesco Di Marco.
The club is composed of 40 businessmen from Brooklyn. The members meet once a month for dinner at Gargiulo’s Restaurant in Coney Island.
The Verrazano Rotary Club is a member of Gift of Life Inc., an organization that seeks out children in need from all over the world and pays for life-saving procedures that are not available to the youngsters in the home countries.
Inspired by the work of Gift of Life Inc., Di Marco and other members of the Verrazano Rotary Club founded Gift of Life Italy New York and began working with doctors and hospitals in Italy. Most of the members of the Verrazano Rotary Club are Italian-Americans, according to Di Marco.
Brenda Rivas was suffering from a heart ailment that required surgery to repair. The youngster, who also has Down Syndrome, was living with her mother in El Salvador with little hope of recovery when Gift of Life New York found her.
“I was in El Salvador on a mission with a doctor. I participated in a conference on how to help Salvadorian children,” Di Marco said.
He came across Brenda and decided to help her.
“This girl is the fifth child from El Salvador we have helped,” Di Marco said.
Gift of Life Italy New York paid for the girl’s flight to Italy, the operation, and the hospital stay.
“The doctor and the medical staff donate their time and skills, but you still have to pay the hospital,” Di Marco said.
Following the successful procedure and a period of recovery, Brenda and Yemmy came to Brooklyn earlier this month and met the donors who paid for the surgery. The donors treated the mother and daughter to dinner at Gargiulo’s.
Among those congratulating the brave little girl were board members Dr. Joseph Caruana, Carl Campagna, Mike Iacobbucci and Vincent Nativo.
The Verrazano Rotary Club is 35 years old. When members aren’t saving children’s lives through Gift of Life Italy New York, they donate their time and money to local causes.
HeartShare Human Services of New York and the Guild for Exceptional Children are among the organizations that have benefitted from the generosity of club members.
“We’ve also donated to the River Fund. We’ve helped the homeless in Coney Island. We’ve bought gifts for the children of soldiers at the Fort Hamilton Army Base,” Di Marco said.
The club also donated $30,000 toward the construction of the “The Beacon,” the statue at the 69th Street pier in Bay Ridge that serves as Brooklyn’s official tribute to the borough residents killed in the Sept.11 terrorist attack.
“We like giving back,” Di Marco said.