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Mending hearts through Mending Kids

Posted: March 8, 2008 11:15 p.m.
Updated: May 10, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Cris Embleton is passionate about making sure children receive adequate medical care, regardless of where they live or their financial situation.

Although it's a common cause many people fight for, Embleton sees it as something personal. Years ago, Embleton's adopted daughter died just three weeks shy of her first birthday.

"She died when $5 worth of medicine would have saved her," Embleton said.

But then Embleton began thinking about the choices parents around the world have to make when they are forced to put a child up for adoption because of their need for expensive medical care.

"Parents shouldn't be making that decision," she said.

So Embleton set a goal to help one child receive medical treatment.

And then she helped another.

She soon found herself helping children all around the world through her non-profit organization, Healing the Children.
But about three years ago, Embleton broke off from the group and started Mending Kids International, currently based in Canyon Country.

Saving lives
The goal of Mending Kids is to give youngsters with serious, yet correctable, medical conditions a chance at treatment in the United States.

Although the organization accepts children from all over the world, Embleton said they are unable to take kids with chronic conditions, nor do they accept children that need transplants.

Since accepted kids are brought to the United States for treatment, Embleton said Mending Kids patients have to be unable to access the needed treatment in their homeland.

Based on the criteria, Embleton said that between 85 to 90 percent of the children have correctable heart conditions.
"It's life threatening, a quick and easy to fix and they grow up and have normal lives," she said.

The remaining percentage of children include those who have sustained extensive burns, need plastic reconstructive surgery or have nonmalignant tumors that need to be removed.

As for age, Embleton said she takes in patients that are 18 years and under, although she admits that she has bent the rule a couple of times.

Ultimately, the hope is for children to receive their needed treatment.

"The thing I learned a long time ago is that it's horrible when a child dies. There's no question. I've gone through it," she said. "But it's even worse when a child suffers and suffers and suffers and then dies. And that's what heart kids can do if they're not treated properly."

Getting to the U.S.
Embleton said that most of the treated kids come through the non-profit's international partners.

In addition, Embleton said the Internet has made a huge difference in terms of connecting families to Mending Kids.

Other times parents connect with the organization through relatives or advice from hospitals.

Once accepted, the organization pays for all costs involved in the child's treatment, ranging from transportation costs to the medical procedures.

"The family never pays," she said. Because travel expenses add up, Embleton said the organization is not able to pay for families traveling to the U.S. The only exception is when a child has a severe medical condition. In those situations, Embleton said that, typically, the mother travels to the U.S. with her child.

Whatever Mending Kids can't pay for is donated by hospitals and businesses.

"I believe strongly in don't pay for anything you don't have to," she explained. "And I used to worry about asking people for favors. Now I figure I'm asking them to be part of a miracle."

For instance, Embleton said one type of machine for a child cost $6,000. But she said she was able to call and ask the company to donate the equipment.

"Any resource we have, we try to multiply them," she said.

Currently, Mending Kids has set up a fund at three hospitals to cover the costs for procedures.

Staying in the States
Once the travel arrangements are complete and children are in America, Mending Kids hopes to make the youngsters feel at home.

Currently, Embleton said Mending Kids has 26 children in America, representing 12 different countries.

Seven of those children stay at the Robin's Nest, Mending Kids' Canyon Country home, where kids can play and recuperate from medical procedures.

The length of a child's stay depends on the severity of their condition and the amount of treatment they need.

The remaining children stay at the Ronald McDonald House or with host families who live all over Southern California.

A few will also stay with relatives.

Randi Swindel is currently serving as a host mom for 9-year-old Andreina.

"She's a walking miracle," she said.

Andreina, who is from Ecuador, has been undergoing tests and procedures to diagnose her heart problems.

Swindel, who lives in the Beverly Hills area, said she initially heard about Mending Kids while volunteering at a hospital in the Los Angeles area.

Although this is her first time as a host mother, Swindel said she is enjoying the experience, given her love for volunteering and helping.

"It just seemed perfect," she said, as children at the Robin's Nest shuffled in and out of the kitchen into the back yard.

A busy robin's nest
The big back yard and spacious home known as the Robin's Nest gives kids a chance to not only heal, but also meet others.

Caren Niewisch oversees the Robin's Nest as the care coordinator.

"My main responsibility is to take care of everyone who lives in this house," she said, referring to the moms, kids and other staff who share the space.

Because a majority of the mothers and children are unfamiliar with life in the U.S., Niewisch said her tasks range from transporting kids to their medical appointments to showing them how to use a shower and toilet.

"A lot of it involves dealing with the medical care that the kids are here to have," she said, as the sound of children playing in the back yard echoed throughout the Robin's Nest.

Niewisch, who initially started as a volunteer for Mending Kids, said she feels grateful to be part of the organization.

She calls the transformation that mothers and children will go through "profound."

"It feels like a miracle every time," she said, referring to how the children heal.

Embleton also senses the special feeling at Robin's Nest, especially since the Mending Kids International offices are adjacent to the home.

"There's something that's so magical that happens in this house," she said. "It's hard to go home at night."

She continued, "People come and they really want to be part of the house. The families all become a family."

One child at a time
With everything that Embleton and the Mending Kids staff have done for thousands of children, she understands that she can't save the world, but knows that she is making a difference.

"My mom used to say, Cris, you can't save the world," she said. "I don't think it's my responsibility to save the world.

What I do believe is that those kids who come across my pathway, I am supposed to do something. And you know what, we have."

To learn more about Mending Kids International call (661) 298-8000 or visit

Mending Kids' Wish List
Even with everything that Mending Kids International has done for thousands of children around the world, the organization remains dependent on help from others to continue their efforts.

Listed below are a handful of what Cris Embleton, founder and executive director of Mending Kids, sees as crucial needs for the organization.

1. Volunteer host families. Upon completion of an application and screening process, these families take in Mending Kids patients that do not stay at the Robin's Nest. Most of the time, parents are unable to come with their son or daughter to the U.S., so host families help make a child feel comfortable during their treatment and stay in America.

2. Long-term volunteers. Embleton said that Mending Kids is only looking for volunteers who can donate vast amounts of time to the organization.

3. Money. "That's the only that moves the machine, like it or not," Embleton said.

4. Frequent flyer miles or credit card miles. These help with transporting children from around the world.

5. Finally, "A whole lot of prayer," Embleton said.

Helping Around the World
Not only does Mending Kids International bring children to the United States for treatment, they also send out medical teams to countries all over the world.

Cris Embleton, founder and executive director, said the organization's team of all-volunteer cardiac doctors is currently planning to visit Ecuador in the coming months.

The team is set to handle 18 open heart surgeries, along with 30 procedures in the catheterization lab, a section of a hospital that diagnoses and often repairs heart defects.

Embleton said all the procedures will be done in six days.

But despite the efforts of the medical team, Embleton knows more kids will be waiting when the doctors arrive to the hospital.

"I can guarantee you when we arrive, there's going to be 100 moms sitting with their kids in the room quietly," she explained. "And they're just hoping we can do one more kid. And it's their child."

Those interested in helping out can contact Mending Kids International by calling (661) 298-8000. More information is also available at


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