Read more news from CNN

Kids come to America to heal and end up making lifetime connections

Staten Island, New York (CNN) In 1997, Elissa Montanti was suffering from paralyzing anxiety and frequent panic attacks.

She had lived through the loss of her mother, followed by her childhood sweetheart. Then it all came crashing down, she said, when she lost her grandmother in 1994.

"I would pray to God that he would see me and help me find my way," said Montanti, now 65.

CNN Hero Elissa Montanti

During that time, a friend asked her to help with a fundraiser for children in Bosnia. They collected toys and school supplies, but Montanti wanted to do more.

She scheduled a meeting with Bosnia's ambassador to the United Nations. He showed her a letter from a little boy named Kenan who lost three limbs to a landmine.

"In that moment, something changed," Montanti said. "I left the United Nations and started making phone calls. In 24 hours, I had an airline, hospital and prosthetic company set up to help him."

It was the start of her Global Medical Relief Fund, a nonprofit that helps children who have birth defects or are victims of war or natural disasters.

Two months later, Kenan and his mother landed in New York. He lived with Montanti for four months, sleeping on her couch in her one-bedroom condo.

He received the prosthetics and rehabilitation he needed. Yet though he was healing on the outside, he still suffered from the trauma he'd been through.

"He'd wake up at night screaming and sweating," Montanti said. "He'd say, 'I'm going to die.' I'd tell him, 'No, you're not. I have these attacks too.' Honest to God, as much as I was helping him, he was helping me, too."

Soon after, Montanti flew to Bosnia to find more children to help.

"I fell in love with the kids," she said. "The anxiety wasn't gone, but my desire to help them was much greater."

Since 1998, her organization has brought more than 300 children from 46 countries to the United States.

The group partners with Shriners Hospitals for Children, as well as others, to provide surgery or prosthetics -- all for free. The nonprofit sticks with the children until they're 21 -- providing more than 1,200 follow-up visits to date.

Today, Montanti's nonprofit has expanded to include its Dare to Dream House in Staten Island, where the children and their guardians live while they receive treatment. Around five families live in the house at one time, all from different countries.

"It's amazing to see them heal together," Montanti said. "They usually don't even speak the same language, but they become family."

For Montanti, this has become her life.

"I spend 24/7 working on this, and I've given up a lot in my personal life," she said. "But this is what I was meant to do. Seeing these children heal and become whole again is the best thing in my life."

CNN's Meghan Dunn spoke with Montanti about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: It seems like you've created a large global family through your efforts.

Elissa Montanti: When people say to me, "Do you have children?" I say, "Yes, about 300." Those 300 children, they are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu. What's so magical about the Dare to Dream House is that you'll have all these families and they come from different corners of the Earth. They all heal together, laugh together. They don't speak the same language. But love is universal, it really is. They communicate in their own way. When they leave, they cry. They met a friend forever.

CNN: You have a lot of great stories about the children you've helped. Is there one that stands out?

Montanti: When I went to Haiti, right after the earthquake, I brought back this little girl who was trapped under the rubble for two days. Her sister took guardianship because her mother had passed. And I said, "When we get back to Staten Island, you're going to meet a boy from the Congo and three children from Iraq." The little girl said, "Oh my god, no. Iraq is bad." I said, "No, there's good and there's bad all over."

Five months later when they left each other, they cried -- the mothers, the guardians, the children. Because they became like family. And to me, that really resonates.

CNN: What impact has your organization had on these children?

Montanti: The impact of the medical treatment is monumental. We're empowering them because we're giving them back what they lost. We're giving them a chance to stand on their own, walk, write, go to school and to contribute to society. So, the impact is huge. And not just on the child, but the family. When they go home, they're whole. And not only that, but inadvertently we're promoting healthy foreign relations, because these families go home and they say how wonderful the American people were.

CNN: How is Kenan—the first boy you helped—doing today?

Montanti: When he graduated high school in 2000, I went to get him in Bosnia and he came here to Staten Island. He's been living here ever since. He lives with me. He is amazing. He graduated college and then he got a wonderful job. Then he went to get his master's degree. He drives. He fixes things, with and without his prosthetics. I truly love him. He's my hero. He's the reason that I'm making a difference in this world.

Want to get involved? Check out the Global Medical Relief Fund website and see how to help.

To donate to Global Medical Relief Fund, click the CrowdRise widget below.

Outbrain