When Unity Costa Rica member John Vann first met Ericka Paniagua four years ago outside her humble home in the western suburb of San Antonio de Escazú, the 7-year-old girl born with a truncated leg had no crutches and was hopping around on one limb. Her prospects for the future were impaired by poverty, with her family – a brother fighting cancer and a loving but illiterate mother – living on $100 a month.
But thanks to the Shriners of Costa Rica and the Unity community in Piedades de Santa Ana, southwest of the capital, Ericka, now an endearing 11-year-old, is receiving the help she so desperately needs – and is walking on a prosthetic leg.
Ericka’s benefactors collaborated to send her to the ShrinersHospital for Children in Shreveport, Louisiana, where all medical treatment is free of charge and accommodation for mothers is provided. During a six-week stay, she was fitted with her first prosthetic leg and taught how to use it.
Because she is still growing, she has to return once a year until she is 18 to be fitted with a new leg. Ericka’s subsequent two visits were for a month each at the Shriners orthopedic hospital in Tampa, Florida. TACA Airlines provided transport for the girl’s first visit to Louisiana, and the Unity community offered financial support for travel expenses for her last two visits to Tampa.
A recent Tico Times visit saw Ericka walking with only a slight limp. She chattered happily about her visits to the United States.
“The food was delicious, and I made friends with other children from Panama, Honduras, El Salvador and Peru,” she said, adding with a smile, “We all spoke Spanish.”
The highlight of Ericka’s stay in Florida was a visit to Disney World, made possible by a donation from friends of Unity congregation members.
“It was wonderful,” she said, beaming. Ericka must also undergo painful operations at the Children’s Hospital in San José when the bone in her leg grows and interferes with her prosthesis. Nevertheless, she is a very positive little girl, and, despite having to miss many days of schooling, she is a top student in her fourth-grade class at Escuela República de Venezuela in Escazú Centro.
“I love to swim, and I’m learning English,” she said proudly, and added, “I want to be a psychologist when I grow up.”
This is certainly an attainable dream, as when she turns 18 and has completed her medical care at the Shriners hospital, she will be awarded a four-year scholarship at a U.S. university.
But before she gets there, Ericka and her family have some obstacles to overcome.
Their home was recently torn down, forcing them to move into an overcrowded house with relatives until a new home of their own can be completed on a small family property.
Thanks to the Unity community and Vann’s fundraising efforts, $11,000 has been raised and the house is three-quarters finished, but $4,000 is needed to complete it.
To contribute to “the house that love built,” as Unity names it, please contact Vann at 2588-1493 or [email protected].