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Nonprofit founder heals one child at a time

Elissa Montanti has devoted her time to helping more than 160 wounded children of war and natural disasters.

Elissa Montanti has devoted her time to helping more than 160 wounded children of war and natural disasters, but unknowingly, they have made a difference in her own life.

Montanti, of Staten Island, N.Y., in 1997 established the Global Medical Relief Fund (GMRF) for children out of her own pain and hardship. At the time, she struggled with depression and panic attacks after the deaths of her mother, grandmother, and high school sweetheart. To overcome the impact of her losses, she reached out to help child victims of Bosnia's civil war, and quickly understood the needs of children in the war-torn country and in other areas of the world.

"Each one of us can make a difference in this complex and sometimes dangerous world, and by doing that you help yourself, you truly do," Montanti said Thursday during a greenroom interview. "I just found that while I was putting these kids back together, they were putting me back together."

She has brought children to the United States from at least 22 different countries, including areas of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, for treatment, surgery, and prosthetic limb and eye fittings. The children become ambassadors to their countries, inadvertently tightening America's foreign relationships.

Montanti's nonprofit assists children who are missing or have lost the use of limbs or eyes, and have been severely burned or have been injured due to war, natural disaster, or illness, according to the organization's website. It began as a walk-in closet inside her home to raise money for toys and school supplies for children of Bosnia. A letter written by an 11-year-old Bosnian boy who had lost both of his arms and a leg to a landmine changed Montanti's life beginning in 1996.

Immediately, Montanti recruited airlines, hospitals, physicians, and prosthetic companies to donate to her services before founding her nonprofit organization. She has conducted almost 1,000 follow-up visits with the effected children, who she chooses based on the extent of their injuries and their home countries.

"If a child lost her leg or a boy lost his arm, you're going to choose the child who lost her leg so she can walk, especially if she doesn't have a home that was destroyed in an earthquake or a war," she told Morning Joe's Louis Burgdorf during the interview.

Despite her efforts, Montanti has struggled with hate mail and donation refusals. People ask her why she cares about children living in foreign areas.

"The thing is that the children here get the help, and there are no landmines here," she said. "You're giving a child back dignity, their youth, and they'll be productive in society. You're putting a shattered child back together again."

She also faces a complex set of problems bringing some of the children to the United States and returning them home. But once they arrive in the country, the children stay in the "Dare to Dream" home during the healing process.

"When you help others," Montanti said Thursday on Morning Joe, "the gift is that you find that you're healing yourself as well."

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Below is Montanti's "Making Things Happen" segment that aired Thursday on Morning Joe.