The Gift Of Life Program

By Arlene Kallaur

Based on an interview with Alexandra Kishkovsky, Co-Founder of the Russian Chapter of the Gift of Life Program.


“Gift of Life” is a program that provides open heart surgery to needy children throughout the world. It is incorporated and administered by participating Rotary Clubs in this country and abroad.

The idea was born in 1974 to a small group of Rotarians from Long Island, NY, and in the sixteen years since, some 800 children have been brought to this country, successfully operated on and given a new life through this program. Without this surgery, these children would have died before adulthood.

Working in cooperation with hospitals and doctors who donate their services, each Gift of Life chapter provides:

1) Round trip transportation for each child and one parent if it is not provided for. (In the case of the Soviet Union, transportation costs are generally paid for by their country’s Children’s Fund.)

2) Expense money for necessities to the parent who accompanies the child for an approximate 30-day stay,

3) Adequate clothing for the parent and child during the stay,

4) A contribution toward the cost of the hospital stay - negotiated on an individual basis, e.g. the Gift of Life Chapter of Greater New York that uses hospitals in the New York City Area and New Jersey, pays the hospital $5,000 per child.


In 1989, the Gift of Life (the originating New York City-Long Island Chapter), through its chairman, Kurt Weishaupt, started to bring children from the Soviet Union. This was made possible by a generous grant ($200,000) from United Parcel Service (UPS), donated for the specific purpose of providing open heart surgery to some 40 Soviet children.

There was then the immediate need for Russian speaking interpreters, hosts to provide lodging for parents and their children(where there was not a hospitality house attached to the hospital), visitors, drivers, etc. The Gift of Life turned to the Russian community, particularly in the Sea Cliff-Glen Cove area of Long Island, for urgent assistance.


Mrs. Alexandra Kishkovsky and Mr. Dimitry Schidlovsky took the initiative to enlist the needed volunteers. At the encouragement of Mr. Weisnaupt, they organized a Russian chapter (as other ethnic chapters have been formed, e.g. Polish, Korean) to work with the Gift of Life in offering this assistance. Letters were sent out to the Orthodox parishes in the area where there were known to be Russian speaking people and to individuals who could speak the language.

On a snowy Sunday in February, 1990, some 50 people turned out for an initial meeting. Others who could not be at the meeting, but who wanted to offer their services, filled out and returned the questionnaire that accompanied the meeting announcement. (See Appendix). Mrs. Kishkovsky matched the volunteers with services needed so that when the first group of II children arrived in March of 1990, each accompanied by a parent, volunteers were in place to greet them. Other groups of children soon followed.

The parents who come are usually exhausted by the illness of their children and the inadequacy of the Soviet medical care. They are worn down by the daily battles with bureaucracy, trying to save the lives of their children. And everything in America is new and strange to them. The volunteers and their parishes succeed not only in providing physical and emotional support, but also much needed spiritual comfort. Several children and parents have been baptized here. They have been given Bibles, prayer books, religious books, and crosses to take home with them.

Since the first child came in November 1989, well over 50 children have been assisted by volunteers from parishes of the various jurisdictions in Sea Cliff, Glen Cove, Flushing, and East Meadow, NY, as well as from Lakewood, Cherry Hill, and Jackson, NJ. The Russian Chapter has formed a committee to organize the work of the volunteers for specific hospitals. They will change periodically to minimize burn-out. Other members have begun to keep records on each child that they care for. (See Appendix). Guided by experience, the Committee is also printing up a fist of helpful hints and suggestions to the parents of the children to give them upon arrival that will help acclimate them to their stay. While a permanent core of helpers is on hand, new volunteers are constantly coming forward. They basically hear about the program now by word of mouth.


The Russian Chapter has also done some fundraising (a dinner with an art auction) and has received personal contributions. It uses these funds for smaller medical expenses and for the minimal operating expenses of its own chapter. They buy, for example, vitamins, medications, and disposable syringes for the children to take home with them. They have also started to provide care packages of non-perishable food to take along as well.

If contributions continue to come in, they would like to extend help to children with medical cases that the existing Gift of Life Program does not cover. According to its bylaws, it is limited to taking open heart surgery cases only.

The Gift of Life Program exists not only in the New York area. There are at the moment 21 such programs in other parts of the country and abroad under the sponsorship of local Rotary Clubs. The Greater New York Chapter is the only one presently bringing in Soviet children; the others host children from many other countries. (In addition to helping the children, the program is also attempting to provide what technical training and equipment it can to doctors and hospitals in the foreign countries so that eventually they will be able to perform the diagnoses and operations themselves.) Support groups like the Russian Chapter can make such a difference in the stay of children and their parents who come to this country with great fright and great hope. All of the kindnesses rendered, they greatly appreciate.


Our family personally participated in the program for the first group that came in March. Because both my husband and I work during the day (though my job is part-time), we were best able to provide lodging. We received a little seven year-old gin and her mother who came from the southern Ukraine. They were with us for the duration of her hospital stay and for a recuperative period afterward.

By taking them to church and to visit with our friends, a whole host of people got to know them, and in many ways extended warmth and kindnesses to make their stay a good one. Getting to know each other was an educational and enriching experience for us all. Living closely with someone who is going through such a stressful situation brings many opportunities for loving and sharing. Cultural differences and misunderstandings had to be dealt with, too. The volunteers, who gathered at a meeting later in the year to assess the program and offer input to make it work even more efficiently, all testified to the fact that whatever they gave, much more was received in return.

For us, it turned out that we were going to be spending four months in Moscow later in the year on an educational exchange. Our guests insisted that we come and visit them. And when they heard on TV that there was no food in Moscow, the husband took a 24 hour train ride up to Moscow, loaded with home-grown food so that we would not be wanting.

Participating in a program such as the Gift of Life, on any level and in any capacity brings untold rewards and adventures. Firm friendships form across continents. And, as Alexandra Kishkovsky affirms, “most importantly this program gives the possibility for us who live so comfortably in America, to help these innocent young children.”

For more information about the Gift of Life Program or the Russian Chapter, contact: Mrs. Alexandra Kishkovsky, Willow Shore Ave., Sea Cliff, N.Y. 11579 - (516) 671-6616.

Arlene Kallaur is Secretary for Departmental Work of the Orthodox Church in America, and a member of Holy Trinity Church, East Meadow, NY.