Children at an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia, climb a cylinder platform and swing between wood rings.
A soldier injured in Afghanistan regains mobility in her leg.
And sight comes to a baby born with vision problems.
They will never know little Charlie Blaser. But it’s because of him that their lives are better.
Charlie died Aug. 24 at age 3. He drowned in a pond after wandering away from a family camping gathering in the Town of Boston.
In the 10 months since, an outpouring of donations in Charlie’s memory has allowed the orphanage from which he was adopted to hire a full-time occupational therapist and fully outfit the therapy room.
Charlie was also an organ donor to the soldier and the baby with sight problems.
“For something so tragic and so horrible and something that we struggle with every day, there’s been an awful lot of good that has come out of it,” said Charlie’s mother, Erinn Blaser.
Charlie was born July 28, 2012, and faced health problems early on while living at the orphanage in Bogota. He also wasn’t making facial expressions or defending himself when he fell.
There’s a saying about children in orphanages: For every three months a child lives in an orphanage, deduct a month from their age in terms of development.
“It’s not that the orphanage is doing anything wrong, there’s no such thing as one-on-one like there is in a home,” Erinn Blaser said. “A lot of the kids just lag in their development.”
Charlie got the help he needed from the orphanage’s part-time occupational therapist, and by the time he was 13 months old, he was ready to be adopted. Erinn and Gary Blaser adopted Charlie Oct. 31, 2013, after spending seven weeks in Bogota.
At home with his new parents in Cheektowaga, the boy settled into his new life. He became a big fan of the New York Yankees and was crazy about superheroes.
“At age two and a half, it clicked for him,” said Erinn Blaser. “Every day it was, ‘Mommy, you be Thor. I’ll be Captain America.’ Or, ‘Daddy, you be Thor, I’ll be Hulk.’”
Charlie and his parents went to Toronto last year for a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees and were allowed to run the bases together as part of a Father’s Day promotion.
‘Words aren’t enough’
When Charlie drowned, the Blasers decided to allow his organs to be donated.
It wasn’t until months later they learned what that act meant.
The Blasers received a letter in March from a soldier who suffered a leg injury while serving in Afghanistan.
“I’m writing to thank you for the kind and generous gift of tissue donation from your loved one,” the letter read. “I am so sorry for your loss and I want you to know your decision to donate has changed my life in an amazing way. I needed a tissue transplant because I badly injured myself while deployed to Afghanistan with medevac. Since the tissue transplant I’ve been able to regain function and mobility in my leg. I’m hopeful over the next year to be completely healthy. For this I am very grateful to you and your loved one. I know words aren’t enough for this gift you offered. I will always remember your act of kindness and generosity.”
They also learned about other people assisted by Charlie’s organ donations.
His corneas were sent to an eye bank in North Carolina where they were transplanted to two recipients, including a baby.
Other recipients are also doing well, including a one-year-old boy in Wisconsin who received his heart, a 30-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man in Buffalo who received his kidneys, and a 4-year-old girl in Texas who received his liver, the Blasers said.
“It’s the coexistence of immense pride and immense sadness,” Erinn Blaser said. “They kind of come together.”
But Charlie’s parents see the organ donation as one way for his legacy to continue.
“We’re not going to have report cards and proms and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “But for the rest of our lives we’ll have this.”
Charlie’s memory also lives on thousands of miles away on another continent.
The orphanage in Bogota is called FANA, which is the Spanish acronym for Foundation for the Adoption of Abandoned Children.
After Charlie died, donations totaling $10,000 poured in to Families of FANA, WNY. Some came from people the Blasers didn’t know.
The local adoption group’s executive director, Paul Fuzak, knew Charlie had benefited from occupational therapy and suggested the money be used to hire a full-time therapist at FANA, where 56 children between 2 and 12 years old need regular sessions. FANA generally has between 80 and 85 children.
“He was such a vibrant, beautiful and active kid,” Fuzak said of Charlie. “We know this would be something that he would, if he was alive, want to sponsor, want to help out with, would want to have happen – and that’s taking care of other kids.”
Charlie’s Project will cover therapist Claudia Renteria’s annual salary.
“In our mind it’s nothing, but it’s a lot down there,” said Fuzak of the salary, $10,645 (U.S.) or $36,480 Colombian. “Our dollar goes a long, long way, which has been great for when we donate. It really helps them out a great deal.”
Charlie’s Project also covered $470 worth of items for the therapy room’s “mini-gym,” said Fuzak, including platforms, stairs, ropes with hooks and more.
“The overall objective is to improve the quality of life and physical, emotional and cognitive performance through rewarding activities,” according to the proposal for Charlie’s Project.
Fuzak said the orphanage already sees “very positive results” in boys and girls in the two months since Renteria became full-time.
“You can imagine when you’re that young, it doesn’t take much to throw you off,” he said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t take much to put you back on track. That’s what’s so special about it.”
He credited the Blasers for sharing his vision as a way to keep Charlie’s memory alive.
“Those two, as far as I’m concerned, are an inspiration as far as strength,” Fuzak said. “I get choked up just talking about them. I just can’t imagine what it was like to go through that and they just held firm.”
The Blasers, meanwhile, said Charlie’s Project gives them “a purpose” and helps them feel his death wasn’t in vain.
“It’s a way for me to channel all this energy and love and everything I have left over that I would channel into Charlie,” Erinn Blaser said. “He was big, huge and loving and amazing in our lives. It’s no shock to us that he was like that to so many other people.”
When the Blasers took Charlie to the baseball game in Toronto, a man wearing a jersey of former Yankees star Derek Jeter crouched down and asked Charlie if Jeter was his hero.
“Charlie turned and looked at me and said, ‘No, Daddy’s my hero,’” Gary Blaser said.
And he told his son, “You’re our superhero, Charlie.”
The Blasers took that memory and connected it to their next fundraiser for the orphanage.
At FANA’s annual golf outing, which will be held July 18 at Wanakah Country Club in Hamburg, tee and green signs depicting superheroes will be sponsored with all the proceeds going to Charlie’s Project.
The hope is it will help sustain Charlie’s Project well into the future and benefit many more children in his homeland.
“They’ll never know Charlie but they will always be better off because of him, and the Blaser and the FANA family,” Fuzak said. “That’s for sure.”