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CNN Hero Elissa Montanti
03:07 - Source: CNN
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.