The Knoxville News-Sentinel Amy McRary, News-Sentinel staff writer July 29, 2001


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For love of Sara

A chance meeting becomes a life's mission for Knoxville woman. The small dirty child looked out of place peddling trinkets from the heavy bag she dragged along the Acapulco beach. But Lori Santoro was the only person who noticed. The girl's feet were burned from the sand; her skin rough from sun. Her once pretty ruffled dress was faded and dirty; her black hair matted to her scalp. The vacationing Santoro ran to stop the child struggling in 104-degree June heat. Speaking in Spanish, Santoro discovered the girl's name was Sara and she was about 3 1/2. But Sara couldn't say where her mother was or where she lived. Panicked, Santoro searched in vain for answers from other adults and peddlers at the beach market. "Nobody cared. Basically the answers I got were, 'She's from the other side of the mountain,' which was a very poor area. That she was selling things to stay alive, to help her family. "The earth stopped rotating for me. No child should have to sell things to survive at 3 1/2. I thought, 'I've got to do something for this child.'" Santoro gave Sara all the money in her pocket -- about $10. She asked to take Sara's photo and coaxed the wary child into a half smile. Even posing, Sara clutched the plastic holder she wore from a string around her neck to hold pesos. She left, pulling her bag along the beach. Santoro felt helpless. "How could I let her go? But I couldn't take her home. And no one cared. No one cared. I was just out of college; there was nothing financially I could do. I just couldn't do anything. I just stood on the beach and cried until I couldn't see her." The next day Santoro took a taxi to the other side of the mountain. She saw extreme poverty, but no Sara. The meeting of the American woman and the Mexican child lasted no more than 20 minutes 14 years ago. "Five minutes after she left, she probably didn't remember me," says Santoro, now 37. "But she changed my life. She was meant to be there; I was meant to be there. I think about her every day. ... She showed me the reality of how many children in the world live like that." Santoro framed Sara's photo, and she has displayed it in her home since their 1987 meeting. That day on the beach, she pledged some day, some way, to help children like Sara. "I thought 'I'm just going to do something.' It was like a little flame that kept going." That flame has grown into Casa de Sara, or Sara's House, a charity to help needy children in Central and South America. Santoro is founder and executive director of the organization named to honor the child she wanted to help so badly. The charity's main objective is to assist orphanages and institutions caring for abandoned children, but Santoro stresses Casa de Sara is not an adoption agency. The charity recently received tax-exempt status and is starting to raise money to fund a list of projects. Santoro, a University of Tennessee graphic design graduate who has worked as a model and on television, is a quick learner. A woman with contagious enthusiasm, she's studying grant writing and has learned to ask for donations and bargain for work. She's found reliable representatives in Santa Cruz and La Paz, Bolivia, to insure delivery of donations and supplies to the children needing help. In six years Santoro hopes Casa de Sara will have a Bolivian office funded by grants and staffed by board member Kathy Syndergaard. and funded by grants. The ultimate goal is to build and run an orphanage in Bolivia. Work to build the orphanage could begin with $250,000. "It's a big undertaking. But we really want to make a difference in children's lives, not just put a Band-Aid on problems," says Santoro. The charity's first project is to repair the roof of a government orphanage in La Paz. Virginia schoolchildren raised $3,000 for the project they asked Casa de Sara to administer. The next endeavor is to raise $3,500 for kitchen equipment, typewriters, sewing machines and educational training for 8- to 16-year-olds in a La Paz girls' home. Another project needs $700 a year to get vitamins to two Bolivian orphanages. All donations will go to children, Santoro says. A key Casa de Sara goal is to help orphans get an education. Children may stay in orphanages until they are 14. But teens with no education or skills usually end up as shoeshine boys or prostitutes, says Santoro. "Not everybody is going to be adopted. Most won't. We want all of these children to have a good basic education so they can grow up, have something to offer and have a chance in their country." Meeting Sara also influenced Santoro's personal life. In 1998 she and husband Craig Miller wanted to adopt a child from Mexico. Unable to find a reliable adoption program there, they researched adoption in other Hispanic countries. They found Children's House International, whose South American adoption program is based in America Fork, Utah. Syndergaard, who directs Children's House's South American program, is also now helping Casa de Sara. In April 2000, Santoro and Miller traveled to Santa Cruz to adopt their 4-month-old daughter from San Lorenzo Orphanage, a Catholic-operated program in a government building. Found abandoned as a newborn, the baby was called Marcela. She suffered from E. coli and bronchitis and weighed only 92 pounds. "It was the happiest day of my life," says Santoro. "I had my own little Sara in my arms." But the adoption that would have taken two weeks stretched into five because of concerns over Marcela's health. On her first night with her new family, Marcela didn't respond to sounds. The next day a doctor dosed Marcela with Valium, tested her reactions and proclaimed her deaf. He advised her new parents, "You do not want this baby; get rid of her." To which Miller replied, "You will have to kill me to get me to leave this country without this baby." The family made visit after visit to doctor after doctor. Finally one physician's tests showed Marcela's hearing and health were fine. She hadn't responded to sound because of a lack of stimulation in the orphanage. Now 18 months old, Marcela is a completely healthy child who hears perfectly and speaks in Spanish and English. Santoro and Miller one day hope to adopt another Bolivian child. While in Bolivia, Santoro met Canadian college students working at San Lorenzo Orphanage through the Global Youth Network organization. They told her about another Santa Cruz orphanage called Hogar Canaan. Santoro went there to find 35 children living without showers, toilets or food. "I thought, 'Here's 35 more little Saras, and I'm not going to let this happen.' " Santoro called Children's House International to ask for help. Syndergaard wired $1,000. Santoro used $400 to buy food, kitchen equipment, cleaning supplies, two toilets and two showers. She persuaded cab drivers to load toilets, found a doctor to give the orphans free medical treatment and used the most of the remaining $600 for medicine. "After I left Bolivia, I thought, 'This is it. This is what I have to do.' " Hundreds of orphanages exist in Bolivia; Santa Cruz alone has 70. They depend on donations to operate. "The basic needs of life -- they don't have it. ... Something as simple as a toothbrush, washing their hair with shampoo, washing with clean water and soap, don't happen. Food is a daily worry," says Santoro. "We know we can make such a difference. You are not going to save a whole continent. You are not going to save a whole country. You are not going to save a whole town. But if you can change the life of one child, really change it. Or if you can change the lives of one group of children in an orphanage -- really change their lives -- they will go on and make their lives better. And they will change their country. "I knew from when I saw Sara this had to be part of my life. There is a time, a place and a reason for everything. Now is the time for this. I have a reminder of why in this (Sara's) picture and a reminder in my home in my daughter. My child is one of these children. I wish Sara could know I wish I could have done the same for her. That day was a sad day. But it was a good day because I'm doing this." Amy McRary can be reached at 342-6437 and Casa de Sara, or Sara's House, is a tax-exempt charity founded by Knoxville resident Lori Santoro to aid needy children in Central and South America. Tax-deductible donations may be made to: Casa de Sara, P.O. Box 30306, Knoxville, TN, 37930. You may also Donate Online via our secure server. For additional information, call us at Local (865) 690-3323 or Toll Free: 866--238-4974 Or e-mail Lori Santoro, Founder and CEO: Caption: (Color) The Hogar Canaan orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, had one outdoor sink before Lori Santoro and a group of Canadian students stretched $400 to build toilets and showers for the 35 children housed there. (Color) Lori Santoro holds her 18-month-old daughter Marcela, who was adopted from a Bolivian orphanage, and a picture of Sara, the little girl Santoro met on a beach in Mexico in 1987. The needy child inspired Santoro to start a charity called "Casa de Sara" to serve the children of Central and South America. News-Sentinel photo by Joe Howell; DIGITAL PHOTO - 0718CASADESARA.JHCopyright 2001 Knoxville News-Sentinel Co. Record Number: 432096