Until September, 13-year-old Joel Chavarria used to hobble around his small Nicaraguan village, one hip rising high above the other as he dragged along his badly deformed right leg, which was covered by a leather brace.
These days, Joel moves much more quickly, his hobble reduced to a limp, with the help of an artificial leg he received this month through the generosity of the 1,400 families of the Roman Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda.
As part of Project Joel, parishioners raised $5,000 in a single Sunday to defray expenses for the boy and his mother, Maura Zeledon de Chavarria, to fly to Washington in September. Once here, local orthopedic surgeon and parishioner Marc Connell operated free of charge to remove Joel's severely deformed right foot, which was replaced with a prosthesis. After weeks of rehabilitation, Joel and his mother returned to their home in Veracruz on Dec. 9.
Before he underwent the operation and received his prosthesis, walking was a struggle for Joel, whose right leg was about eight inches shorter than his left and ended in a deformed foot that jutted out at a sharp angle. Over the years, Joel had developed a gait that was sure to leave him significantly disabled as he grew older, Connell said.
Little Flower Deacon Richard Schopfer, of Bethesda, remembers watching Joel's classmates make fun of him as he struggled to play kickball at the Center for Children and Family, a mission that Schopfer founded in Veracruz.
Though Joel was able to move about and ride his bicycle, Schopfer realized that the boy's deformity severely limited his future. Living on a farm in the poor rural community about 15 miles outside Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, Joel and his parents didn't have the means to pay for the medical help he needed.
Sometimes the boys "picked on him a little bit because he couldn't run," Schopfer said. "He really was the most critical need because he didn't have much future."
So Schopfer came up with a plan to correct Joel's deformity and turned for help to his home parish. Monsignor William Kane and the parish council heartily endorsed "Project Joel" and made plans to bring the boy and his mother here for the operation. In addition to the $5,000 raised through a church collection, a parishioner donated $3,000 to help defray expenses.
"Everybody was pretty excited about it," Kane said. "We felt like we had the resources, the talent and the will to do it. It's been like a community project."
After examining Joel's X-rays, Connell decided that amputation was required if Joel was to walk normally. On Sept. 21, he removed Joel's leg below the knee at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, which also donated its services.
"It took a tremendous amount of courage for this [boy] to come up here and do this," Connell said. "It was a tremendous culture shock for him number one, and number two to put his faith in us to amputate the only leg he knew."
Joel's mother, whose Spanish was translated by Schopfer, said she and her son were fearful about making the trip to the United States, because neither had much experience riding in cars, let alone an airplane. But Joel's mother, 52, had high hopes for the operation and what it would mean for Joel.
"She thought the result would be good," Schopfer translated. "She prayed for her son that the operation would go well and everything would go smoothly."
When asked whether he was happy with the outcome of the operation and his visit to the United States, Joel nodded yes and said he looked forward to walks with his father.
While they were in Bethesda, Joel and his mother stayed at the home of a parishioner just a few blocks from Little Flower School, where Joel attended classes and was warmly received by students, Kane said.
"The kids loved him. That's one of the exciting things to see--how the kids love Joel," he said. "They fight over him at lunch."
On Dec. 1, Joel turned in a temporary prosthesis that he was given after his wound healed and received another with the mobility of a real foot. After the operation, parishioner and physical therapist Therese Rodda donated her time to work with Joel each day as he learned how to walk anew.
"He's coming to terms with it," Rodda said of Joel's adjustment to his new leg. "I think he'll be very pleased with it in the end."
Joel will spend the next three months, his school vacation, at home but will return to Bethesda in March to be fitted for a permanent prosthesis.
Through Schopfer, Kane said, the parish will keep in touch with Joel, making sure that the prosthesis is working out, and helping with such expenses as a tutor if Joel can't make it to school in Veracruz.
"We're making a comprehensive commitment," Kane said. "We're not just going to send him back on a plane."