Class of 2014 Difference Makers

The Melha Shriners

Their Investments in the Lives of Children Are Paying Huge Dividends

Al Zippin, left, past potentate, and current Potentate William Faust.

Al Zippin, left, past potentate, and current Potentate William Faust.
Photo by Denise Smith

Howard Newman was relating the story of how he and his wife, Cindy, ultimately decided to adopt a 2-year-old Russian boy suffering from what’s known as ‘limb deficiency’ — the child was born missing part of his thigh bone and fibula, and had a foot where his short leg ended.

He started by recalling what he could of a conversation the couple had with an orthopedic specialist practicing not far from where they lived in the Albany, N.Y. area. Essentially, the Newmans were looking for insight into what this boy was up against, what care he would need, and what kind of life he could expect.

And the doctor answering their questions wasn’t exactly filling them with hope and optimism.

“He tried to discourage us from doing this,” Howard recalled. “He said that a boy like this may never walk. He was giving us all the negatives, saying things like ‘think about having to carry a 20-year-old up and down steps.’”

But the Newmans were not to be easily deterred. They had the same discussion with more specialists, and eventually gained enough confidence to buy two plane tickets to Russia — and three for the ride home.

When they picked up the child, they had a talk with the Russian doctor administering the physical that was required to complete paperwork for the American embassy. He had what amounted to a question wrapped in the form of a plea.

“He said, ‘you are taking him to Shriners, aren’t you?’” said Howard.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, they did. Specifically, they took him to the Shriners Hospital for Children on Carew Street in Springfield, and they’ve been bringing him back periodically for more than 16 years.

His care there started with the amputation of his foot, leaving young Isaac in a body cast for six weeks. He was then fitted for a prosthetic leg, the first of several he’s needed over the years.

“As I grow, I need new legs,” said Isaac, adding that there were years when he went through two.

As he talked with BusinessWest on a cold Friday morning in late January, he was at the hospital to be fitted for the latest of these prosthetic limbs, all provided free of charge.

“I’ve pretty much stopped growing now — they’re replacing this one because it’s faded,” said Isaac, who walks with a slight limp and can run with his fellow classmates during gym class.

He leads what Dr. David Drvaric, who performed the amputation surgery and has cared for Isaac since he first arrived at the hospital, called a normal life. “He just has to put his leg on every day.”

Howard Newman said Isaac’s experiences with Shriners went a long way toward convincing he and Cindy to adopt another Russian child with similar problems, a girl named Chloe. She is also a regular visitor at the hospital, and, like her brother, has gone through a number of prosthetic limbs.

Isaac Newman, seen here with his father, Howard

Isaac Newman, seen here with his father, Howard, has been coming to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield for more than 16 years.

It isn’t written down anywhere, but it is the unofficial mission of the Melha Shrine Temple, based on Longhill Street in Springfield, to help script more success stories like those involving Isaac and Chloe.

The Melha Shriners, like other temples across the U.S. and around the world, raise money to fund the 22 Shriners Childrens Hospitals in this country and now also Canada and Mexico. But equally important, they work tirelessly to raise awareness of these facilities and the critical, compassionate work that goes on at each one, while also dispelling the misperceptions that exist concerning them.

And there are many, said Chuck Walczak, administrator for both the Springfield hospital and another facility in Erie, Pa., starting with the commonly held belief that the hospitals care only for the children of Shriners, or that there are other limitations on who receives services. There’s also the notion that, because the care provided is free — although the hospitals will now ask patients’ families to use their insurance, if they have it — it is not of the highest quality. Even physicians practicing behind the former Iron Curtain know that’s not the case.

“Unfortunately, we’re a best-kept secret, and that’s not what we want to be,” said Walzcak, who credited the Melha temple with excellent, and ongoing, work to help rid the facility of that distinction.

And as the Shriners carry out that important work, they do it with a distinctive style and attitude, if you will — one focused on fun. The most visible manifestations of this are the annual Shrine Circus at the Big E and the ever-present clown unit, but those qualities permeate each of the 14 units, from bands to the many motorized vehicles, and each parade they appear at.

Al Zippin, long-time member of the Melha Temple, past potentate, and unofficial historian, summed it all up nicely.

“As Shriners, we’re investing in the future, and the reason I say that is our investment is in children — if we improve the quality of their lives, the future gets brighter for everyone,” he said, striking at the heart of the reason why the Melha group has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2014.

Fun — with a Purpose
As he talked with BusinessWest at the Shriners facility, one of the many mansions on Longhill Street that have been retrofitted for other purposes, Zippin said the Melha Temple is now 115 years old.

It boasts members from across Western Mass., from the New York border to Worcester, and also from Northern Conn. There are roughly 1,400 members now, down from about 3,500 three decades ago, and perhaps 5,000 in the ’60s, he noted, adding that, like many fraternal organizations and service clubs, the Shriners are challenged with the task of convincing members of the younger generations to make the requisite commitments of time and energy to the organization.

But while smaller in size, the Melha Temple remains very active and quite impactful, said Zippin, who used that term to describe everything from the many forms of support given to all Shriners hospitals, and especially the Springfield facility, to participation in events and the staging of the circus, to the way in which this organization inspires its members to continually find ways to give back to the community.

“Once you get a taste of this,” he said, deploying that word to describe all of the above, “you don’t restrict yourself to the Shriners.

“That’s what happened to me,” he went on, adding that he became involved with groups and causes ranging from the Children’s Study Home to the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Masonry’s lessons lead you down that path — being aware of the needs of other people, being tolerant of others, and maintaining values and standards.”
There are 14 units within the Melha Temple, including the clowns (some of whom will make more than 100 appearances a year); a number of bands, including the popular Highlanders (bagpipers), a military band, a drum corps, an oriental band, and others; a host of motorized teams; and other units assigned specific projects. One orchestrates the circus, for example, while another, the so-called Directors Staff, offers tours of the Springfield hospital each weekend.

The performing units take part in a number of parades, including the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the July 4 event in East Longmeadow, and many others, said current Potentate William Faust, adding that the latest addition to the calendar is one in Winchendon.

There are also a number of events, such as the Chowder Bowl Football Classic involving local high-school stars, the annual Springfield Carnival, the temple’s annual game dinner, and others, all of which are designed for family involvement.

And that’s especially true of the annual Shrine Circus at the Big E.

The four-day spectacle, which debuted in the ’30s and has now continued for 60 consecutive years, draws thousands of attendees annually, said Zippin, and boasts a number of ongoing traditions.

Chief among them is the so-called Community Services Show, the Friday-afternoon performance, for which the Shriners donate all 4,700 tickets to area human-services agencies that work with children.

The Shriner clowns

The Shriner clowns have historically been one of the most visible manifestations of the Melha Temple’s huge presence in the community.

Zippin noted that he’s now seen three generations of the same family grow up with the event — and often come back together each May.

“People ask me what I do at the circus,” he said. “I tell them by the time it starts, my work is essentially over, so what I do is walk around and just look at the generations, the families, just having a great time; it’s incredibly rewarding.”

But while the circus and the parades bring revenue to the Melha Temple and, in turn, its units entertain and inspire people of all ages, such community outreach is undertaken for one reason — to bring important exposure to the Shriners’ philanthropy, its children’s hospitals.

“I’m a nut about exposure and PR, and I look at the circus and the parades as ways to simply remind people we’re here and that we have a great purpose,” said Zippin. “People will say, ‘boy, you have a lot of fun,’ and we can have fun because we look at the hospital up on Carew Street, and we know why we’re here.”

This mindset applies to the circus as well, even though the proceeds from those shows go toward operating the temple and the Longhill Street facility, not the hospital.

“The more visible we can be, the more we can bring the hospital story out to everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “And we need to keep doing that, and the circus really puts us in the public eye.”

Faust agreed. “Each year, the potentate has to come up with a slogan for the year,” he said. “My slogan is ‘Melha Shriners: having fun and helping kids,’ and that really says it all. We go out there and have fun at all our events, but it’s fun with a purpose.”

Care Package
When asked to put the Shriners — meaning the organization and its mission — into perspective, Zippin relayed a sentiment he’s probably expressed hundreds of times and in front of all kinds of audiences.

“When we have people who are thinking of becoming Shriners or who just recently joined, I always say to them, ‘how many organizations do you know where you can go in, and simply by being a member and paying your dues, you can have an impact on a child’s life — indirectly, but an impact?’” he said, while shifting the conversation about the organization back to where he thought it belonged: the hospitals.

There are 22 of them, 19 in the U.S. The operation in Springfield, one of two in Massachusetts, was originally opened in 1925. That hospital was replaced by the current facility on Carew Street in 1990. There are three major components to the Springfield facility:

• The Orthotics and Prosthetics Department, which custom-designs prosthetic adoption devices;
• The Motion Analysis Laboratory, which is involved in the study and application of biomechanics and gait analysis, including the use of a 3-D body scanner to measure body shape; and
• The Cleft Lip and Palate Clinic, which follows 360 patients through treatment options for cleft lip and palate repair.

Overall, the Springfield hospital, one of several that focus on muscular-skeletal disorders, has 12,000 active patients, who can receive care there until they are 21. They are treated for everything from chest-wall deformities to hip disorders; knock knees to limb deficiency; scoliosis and other spine deformities to spina bifida. As with both Isaac and Chloe Newman, patients are offered care over a number of years, said Walczak.

One ongoing challenge for the hospital, as he mentioned, is creating awareness of its presence, specialties, track record, and policies for admitting anyone whose condition meets its scope of services, free of charge.

“We’re narrowly scoped, but steeped in our expertise — we’re a specialty hospital,” he explained. “We don’t have the same resources and market identity as larger facilities.”
There is a new national marketing slogan — “Love to the Rescue” — that has been created to help brand and promote the hospitals as a group, he went on, “but within each of our markets, it’s very difficult to get the word out in a way that reaches everyone the way we would like.

“We don’t put a lot of money in our marketing budgets — we try to put every dollar toward patient care,” he continued, adding that this is why the multi-faceted support of the many Shrine temples, and especially Melha, is so critical to the hospital’s success moving forward.

The statue outside the Shriners Hospital

The statue outside the Shriners Hospital in Springfield pays homage to the Shriners and their work with children.

Shriners serve the facility in a number of ways, Walczak said — everything from those aforementioned tours to serving as volunteer drivers to pick up and drop off patients, to serving on the hospital’s board of governors.

“It’s a very collaborative relationship,” he said of the temple and the hospital, adding that tours are just one example of this phenomenon, but an important one because they usually bring out the passion the organization has for the hospital.

“We have a contingent of gentlemen who know this place inside and out, and they love to come here on weekends, nights, whenever, and show off this facility,” he said. “The gentlemen of Melha and the other shrines are so proud of these places; I’ve seen them come into this place crying because they’re just so proud of it. The passion, the loyalty, and the intensity is like something I’ve never seen in any place I’ve been in.”

Life and Limb

Isaac Newman will be graduating from high school next year.

That orthopedic specialist in Albany with whom his parents-to-be consulted all those years ago could not have been more wrong about his fate and the quality of life he would enjoy. And the same is true for his sister.

As Dr. Drvaric noted, Issac’s is a normal existence, apart from having to put his leg on every day. He and his family owe that to the Shriners around the world, and especially those at the Melha Temple, who have made the children’s hospitals their philanthropy — and their reason for being.

And for that, all those who have served the organization are worthy to be called Difference Makers.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]