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Joining forces: Hastings family pools resources to give one girl back surgery

Cameron Perra is pictured with one of his classes in Venezuela.

It started with a mission trip. Cameron Perra, a 2011 graduate of Cretin-Derham Hall who lived in Hastings much of his life, decided to spend his first year out of high school doing some international service work teaching English in Venezuela. But the trip became much more than that, and on Monday, one girl will start living a life free of debilitating scoliosis.

When Perra graduated from high school, he wanted to do something different. He wanted to learn more about the world and learn Spanish better. So instead of going off to college, he went to Venezuela.

The trip was coordinated through Perra's church. Two priests living and teaching in Venezuela come from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Perra got to know one of them through school. They talked about the church and school in Venezuela and about an opportunity for Perra to go there himself and teach English.

He left in September of 2011 for a nine-month stay. While he was there, Perra taught English classes at the church four to five days a week. He had two groups of students, one for younger children ages 8 to 14, roughly, and one for older teens and adults. Having no teaching experience going in, he at first had to rely on the notes and worksheets left by others who had taught before him.

In the mornings, he would go to a school that taught orphaned children in their early- to mid-teens. Some of the children there had never been to school before. Perra said he got to help teach one 13-year-old boy how to read while he helped the teacher there.

"It was hard, but I felt that I did something," he said of the experience.

Besides getting to help out, Perra got to experience a different way of life - one that he really took a liking to.

"I really liked Venezuela and the lifestyle," he said.

In the U.S., he said, there's a constant sense of hurrying through the day. Many people eat lunches while they work, or skip lunch altogether, he said. In Venezuela, there's a siesta - a two-hour break in the hottest part of the day when people can go home, relax or even take a nap before going back to work for the afternoon.

The other aspect of life there Perra appreciated was the sense of community. Everyone there works together, he said. If a group of friends goes out to dinner together, they pool their money and decide what they can get to share, as opposed to the U.S. tendency to split a bill or loaning a friend the money. People in Venezuela are very poor, Perra said, but they are very generous.

His time there has helped him start to direct his own future. Now a student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Perra is majoring in international studies. He hasn't decided for sure what he wants to do for a career, but he's heavily leaning toward something that will allow him to work overseas.

Changing a life

While helping in Venezuela, Perra got to know one family particularly well. Gregoria, the mother, was a secretary at the school and would often invite him and others to her home for dinner with her family. Her daughter, Greiicys, had a severe case of scoliosis, a condition in which the spine is improperly curved.

"She has pain pretty much constantly," Perra said.

Because the curve of Greiicys's spine is so severe, she can't sit up straight and the pain affects her mobility. In Venezuela, she has had three surgeries already, one of which happened while Perra was in the country.

During Holy Week, Perra's family visited him in Venezuela. Gregoria invited them all to dinner, and Perra's father, an orthopedic surgeon, recognized just how severe Greiicys's scoliosis was. From that visit, work began to get Greiicys to the U.S., where she could get reliable surgery to fix her spine.

Perra's father was able to coordinate several people to get the surgery set up at no cost for Greiicy and her family. Perra's uncle is a spinal surgeon, and he volunteered to do the procedure at no cost. They found a spinal hardware company willing to donate the metal hardware necessary for the procedure. The medical director at Gillette Children's Hospital, who happened to have a son who also spent a summer in Venezuela and knew Greiicys and her family, was able to get the hospital to donate its services as well.

The biggest challenge was getting Greiicys and her mother Visas so they could make it to the U.S. They started the process last September.

"It was definitely a process," Perra said.

The women had to travel three times to the visa office in Caracas, a 10-hour trip by bus through a dangerous country. They had to go through interviews and have a financial sponsor who would be responsible for looking after them and giving them a place to stay while in the U.S. Their approvals came just this past spring. In late May, Greiicys and her mother finally made it to the U.S. They've been taken in by Rev. Greg Schaffer, one of the priests associated with the Venezuelan mission; friends from Venezuela who now live in the Twin Cities area; and Perra's family. Others have chipped in to pay for plane tickets.

"There has been a lot of people coming together to make it happen," Perra said.

On Monday, July 1, Greiicys will be in surgery in St. Paul.

One of the reasons it was so important to Perra to see his friend get surgery in the U.S. was because of the medical conditions in Venezuela. There, no matter what surgery is being done, the patient has to provide any hardware necessary to complete the procedure, such as the metal brackets and screws Greiicys needs. If the patient doesn't have the money for high-quality hardware, the effectiveness of the surgery can suffer, Perra said. Hospitals there are overcrowded and understaffed, with little privacy.

Here, that's all different. Great pains are taken to make sure the patient and family are comfortable and well cared for. Things like having the Ronald McDonald House, where Greiicys's mother can stay while she's in the hospital, make a huge difference, Perra said.

The other reason Perra wanted to get involved was simply because he could.

"I had all the opportunities available to make it happen," he said.

With his father's connections and his uncle being a spinal surgeon, there was little reason to question the decision to help.

"Why wouldn't we do this?" Perra said.

Greiicys and her mother will return to Venezuela in early August, about a month after the surgery. Once she's back, she hopes to start college, Perra said.