Israel nonprofit Save a Child’s Heart saves kids worldwide

Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation. One of the most memorable parts of my visit was being introduced to a nonprofit organization called Save a Child’s Heart. SACH’s mission is to save the lives of children who have heart problems and who live in places where it’s difficult or impossible to access the cardiac care they need.

Through meeting some of these children, their families and the medical personnel who are helping them, I saw firsthand how Save a Child’s Heart embodies the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

My group’s guide to SACH’s work was Tamar Shapira, who is deputy executive director/director of international & public relations. When I was back in the U.S., I caught up with Tamar via Zoom to learn more about Save a Child’s Heart and how the organization’s work bridges divides.

‘I Found My Place’

Tamar made Save a Child’s Heart her home as a #Firestarter 15 years ago. Back then, she was working in the media world and experienced a #GreatMeSet. “I just felt I needed a change,” she says of that time in her life. “It’s a very hectic way of living, to cover the Middle East for a news agency. And I was looking for meaning. I had to stop and think, ‘What do I want? What’s happening?’”

When Tamar was looking for a new way to use her talents, Save a Child’s Heart was looking for someone to manage PR for the organization. Over the years, her role has grown. “I found my place, my heart,” she says. “I’m in the right place.”

That’s easy to see, since Tamar’s passion shines through as she talks about the story of Save a Child’s heart and all the ways the organization changes the lives of children in need.

The movement that Tamar is a part of started almost 30 years ago with a physician named Ami Cohen. A native of Washington, D.C., Dr. Cohen immigrated to Israel in the ‘90s and started working at Wolfson Medical Center.

“He was approached by an Ethiopian pediatric cardiologist, a colleague of his, who was, back then, the only pediatric cardiologist Ethiopia had,” Tamar says. “So that doctor asked Ami to help him with two children who urgently needed heart surgery.”

 Dr. Cohen answered the call and brought the children to Israel for surgery. They even stayed at his home.

“Then they sent another two, and another five, and by the end of that year, Ami decided he wanted to found this organization with the mission of helping children with heart disease in developing countries,” Tamar says. “I always think that there are two types of people. There are people who, when you ask them something, will find the reason why they can’t do it. And there are people who are always trying to find how to do it. And I guess Ami was that kind of person.”

‘No Room for Politics’

From those beginnings, Save a Child’s Heart grew into an organization that today has saved more than 6,000 children from 66 different countries. SACH helps kids in different ways, Tamar explains.

 First, it brings children without access to cardiac care to Israel for lifesaving procedures. While in Israel, young patients stay in SACH’s Legacy Heritage Children’s Home. Second, Save a Child’s Heart offers training for medical personnel from developing countries. They stay in Israel for one to five years and then return home to treat children using what they learned. Finally, a few times a year, teams from Save a Child’s Heart go on medical missions to developing countries. In fact, when we talked, Tamar had just returned from a trip to Zanzibar in Tanzania.

The work isn’t without challenges, of course. Like #Firestarters around the world, SACH had to find ways to keep their movement alive amid the Covid-19 pandemic. “Under very strict regulations, tests and isolations, children kept coming into Israel,” Tamar says. “We continued with training.”

And then there are simply the realities of operating in Israel. “One of our doctors used to say that regardless of where the missiles fly, the children keep coming,” Tamar says. “The medical team made the decision many years ago that no matter what, we are continuing with activity, including with children from Gaza and from the West Bank. There’s no room for politics there.”

One of the most painful challenges for Save a Child’s Heart came just a few years into the organization’s existence. In 2001, Dr. Cohen died suddenly while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. “He was everything — the founder, the surgeon, the fundraiser, the administrator,” Tamar says. Everyone involved with SACH was devastated. But they were also determined that the organization would survive and honor Dr. Cohen’s legacy.

‘This Holy Place’

And that’s exactly what Save a Child’s Heart has done. On average, SACH saves a child’s life every 24 hours. The organization’s missions around the world have reached more than 10,000 children in need.

Save a Child’s Heart has been honored with the United Nations Population Award (the only Israeli organization ever to receive this award). SACH has also opened the Save a Child’s Heart International Pediatric Cardiac Center at the new Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital at Wolfson Medical Center.

Those milestones give Tamar a sense of deep pride and fulfillment, as do her personal experiences. During the SACH’s recent mission to Tanzania, she reunited with a young woman whose life had been saved by SACH in Israel when she was a girl. Today, the young woman is working, married and expecting a child. “The doctors examined her and her baby and found both of them in very good condition,” Tamar says. “These success stories fill us with so much energy to continue.”

She continues, “I feel that I not only help save children’s lives, I maybe, possibly even help create a better world.” More than half of the children SACH treats are Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. “Every Tuesday, we have a free clinic at the hospital for the Palestinian children. 20-30 kids come every week to be examined by the Israeli Save a Child’s Heart physicians. And this has been going on for years regardless of the situation.”

SACH has also treated children from countries that have tense relationships with Israel, such as Syria and Iraq. “There are people involved in the project from left to right,” Tamar says. “And it’s Israel. Everyone has an opinion, and it’s strong. But somehow, nothing enters this holy place of Save a Child’s Heart.”

How You Can Help

There are many ways you can help Save a Child’s Heart carry out their lifesaving, bridge-building work.

You can make a real difference for the organization simply by sharing this article or other information about Save a Child’s Heart on social media. “The question I hear a lot if ‘How come we didn’t hear about this before?’” Tamar says. Your efforts to raise awareness about Save a Child’s Heart go a long way.

If you’ll be traveling to Israel, you can visit or even volunteer at the Save a Child’s Heart children’s home. “We always need help there,” Tamar says. “So people are invited to come and visit and play with the kids and volunteer.”

The organization also has chapters throughout North America that you can become a part of, and donations are always needed. Your cash contribution supports everything from caring for kids in the children’s home to training medical team members. Visit the organization’s website to learn how to start a fundraiser, arrange a bequest, buy merchandise that supports Save a Child’s Heart or donate to a program fund.

Huge thanks to Tamar for taking the time to talk with me and inspiring all of us to manifest tikkun olam in our own lives!

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