A child’s appeal to “God and all merciful people to help me getting prosthetics” forever changed Elissa Montanti’s life. Those words, written in a 1997 letter by a Bosnian boy who had stepped on a land mine and lost both arms and one leg, moved American medical technician Elissa Montanti to help young victims of the civil war being waged in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former province of Yugoslavia.
A native of Staten Island, New York, Elissa reached out and took action. She approached the United Nations ambassador from Bosnia with an offer to send school supplies and toys to children. The ambassador responded by reading her the young boy’s letter, and Elissa quickly comprehended the far more urgent needs of children in war-torn countries. She began to recruit airlines, hospitals, physicians, and prosthetic companies to donate their services. Kenan Malkic, the writer of the letter, and his mother soon arrived at JFK Airport and were welcomed into Elissa’s home. During their four month stay in the U.S., Kenan received new arms, a new leg, and with them, his new life.
Shortly thereafter Elissa founded the nonprofit, nonpartisan Global Medical Relief Fund (www.gmrfchildren.org). Its mission is to aid children who are missing or have lost the use of limbs or eyes, have been severely burned, or suffer other effects of war, natural disaster, or illness. A 501c3 organization, GMRF is supported entirely by private donations and grants. Since its foundation, GMRF has brought more than 150 children to the U.S. from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for treatment, surgery, and prosthetic limb and eye fittings. Elissa has sponsored patients from countries across the world, including Bosnia, China, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Mexico, Nepal, Niger, Pakistan, the Congo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Libya—regions that may offer limited pediatric care, poorly fitted prostheses, or none at all.
Elissa has brought together a unique team that, in her words, “makes miracles happen.” She has worked with a number of medical centers, including Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia, Boston, and Erie, which provide surgery, prosthetics, and rehabilitation; Long Island Jewish Medical Center; the Long Island Plastic Surgery Group; Winthrop-University Hospital; Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; and Ocular Prosthetics Inc.
Elissa believes each child she helps through the GMRF becomes an “ambassador” who returns home not only with a healed, mended body and a new hope for life, but also with an experience of “America at its best.” Witnessing human suffering during visits to Bosnia, Iraq, and Haiti has only confirmed Elissa’s belief that charity is much bigger than one person. “Healing wounds, easing pain, and putting back together a broken child is its own reward,” she says. “What more important mission is there than aiding innocent, victimized children?”
Elissa lives in Staten Island with Kenan, that first Bosnian patient, now 28 and like a son to her, and their family dog Shilo. Her passions include music and writing poetry, which has won recognition from the American Poetry Society. Elissa recently collaborated with the noted New York musical team James Dawson and Seth David Walter on a signature song for her foundation, the anthem “Back Together Again.” A portion of proceeds from song sales will be donated to the Global Medical Relief Fund.
Elissa has been featured in Parade Magazine, Reader’s Digest, People Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, and numerous other publications.