The founding story of the Child Wellness Center is shared through the words of its founders, Prof. Dr. Yonca Bulut and Prof. Dr. Metin Karaböcüoğlu:
“Physicians dealing with child health and diseases have unfortunately witnessed many times that adults often forget about children during major crises. This has always been a source of pain and a recurring concern among pediatricians.
As soon as we realized the magnitude of the February 6th earthquake, we, as pediatricians, proactively wanted to avoid experiencing the same difficulties. We quickly reached out to our colleagues on the ground and various associations to discuss what was happening there, and how we could assist the doctors on the ground both scientifically and physically.
On the third day after the earthquake, a message came to the Turkish Society of Pediatric Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine from Prof. Dr. Yonca Bulut, a pediatric intensive care physician living in the United States. The message stated that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was looking for a partner to help children in Turkey. Prof. Dr. Metin Karaböcüoğlu, the founding secretary-general and honorary president of the association, responded to this message, and an agreement was reached to develop a project for the children who had lost their limbs in the disaster.
This project was immediately conveyed to Prof. Dr. Dinçer Yıldızdaş, the president of the Turkish Society of Pediatric Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, and Prof. Dr. Haluk Çokuğraş, the president of the Turkish Pediatric Association, and they also provided their support. While spreading the news to our friends and colleagues in the United States, we also worked on organizing the project in Turkey. During this time, Dr. Pelin Cengiz, a pediatric intensive care attending physician in Wisconsin, expressed her desire to start a fundraising campaign for earthquake victims at her university and joined the project. The following day, with Pelin’s invitation, Prof. Dr. Aclan Doğan, our neurosurgeon friend from Oregon, joined the project. Aclan told us that he could connect us with the BTF (Bridge to Turkiye Fund). During this time, Yonca reached out to other aid organizations in the United States, and Metin contacted Dr. Nilüfer Esen Bilgin, who would be the future president of Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA). Everyone told us that such large projects could only be accomplished with the support of major funds like the Bridge to Turkiye Fund (BTF) and the Turkish Philanthropy Funds (TPF). As always, Prof. Dr. Gökhan Hotamışlıgil didn’t leave us alone in our efforts and rolled up his sleeves to work with us on this project.
At this stage, while considering where the project should be carried out and where the project center should take place in Turkey, Çukurova University came to mind. Çukurova University, being the closest to the disaster area, housing all the medical and scientific requirements, and not being affected by the earthquake, was our first choice. We contacted Prof. Dr. Hayri Levent Yılmaz, the Vice President of Çukurova University, and he immediately conveyed the matter to the President. Prof. Dr. Meryem Tuncel, the President of Çukurova University, is one of the key figures in the success of this project, both in terms of vision and providing us with more support than we expected. The President immediately said to us, “Instead of conducting such a project in different polyclinics of Çukurova University, let us allocate an area for you on our campus so that you can build your own building there. This way, it will be a lasting work, and besides, you will emphasize the importance of child health in times of disaster once again.” Thus, the project transitioned from the conceptual stage to the implementation stage in an unexpected moment.
The Banks Association of Turkey has been a key institution that places significant importance on children’s health and provides support in various projects, including the “Çok Yaşa Bebek Kampanyası” (Long Live Babies Campaign), for many years. We quickly reached out to Mr. Ekrem Keskin, the General Secretary of The Banks Association of Turkey, and our senior banking executive friends. Within one week, The Banks Association of Turkey provided financial support for the construction of the building.
This meant that we had an active project, support from scientific institutions, the backing of Çukurova University’s Presidency, a plot of land on the university campus, the necessary funds to build our building on this land, and friends who were working tirelessly to raise funds for the project. All these developments took place in approximately two weeks. We established a WhatsApp group, and shared every update with all our partners and developed all the ideas there.
Simultaneously, we began drafting the initial protocols, focusing on the project’s purpose, mission, vision, and how this service could be carried out. While creating these documents, we also started learning about prostheses, how they are made, how the process works, what the cost of a prosthesis is, how many prostheses are needed, and how many patients on the ground had lost limbs. We gathered information, calculated estimated budgets, and began answering these questions. While doing this, we realized that the most significant challenge for a project like this is sustainability; and we didn’t have any resources, let alone long-term funds, not even for emergency situations.
At this stage, about 2-3 weeks after we began to dream, two more crucial turning points occurred. First, our friends reached out to Ms. Şenay Ataselim Yılmaz from TPF. In the first Zoom meeting, Ms. Şenay informed us that we needed to make a formal written application and that they would respond to our application without delay. One week after we submitted our application, Ms. Şenay announced through her Twitter account and in writing that they would make a $500,000 donation to President Meryem Tuncel, and they might find even larger donors after the project took shape.
Just a couple of days after the meeting, while filling out TPF’s application form, we had a Zoom meeting with BTF, which marked another significant turning point for the project. As we were excited about how to present ourselves and explain the project, dear Emin Pamucak, with his usual smiling face and calm voice, said, “Don’t bother trying to convince us. We’ve received the necessary information about your project from our friends, and this project aligns 100% with our goals. We are fully committed to this project from start to finish because it falls under the themes of children’s health, child education, and support for education. We are ready to work with you all through.” He asked us directly about the estimated budget, and we shared the amount we estimated for two years. He said, “Sure, we will provide you with the money you need for this project in two years. Now, let’s discuss how to raise this money and how to run your project.” It was during this initial meeting that the name “Project CATE (Children Amputee of Turkiye Earthquake)” was established.
Within two days, our first visual was prepared by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Özgür Aktaş, who was waiting in fear with their newborn baby while Adana was still shaking from the earthquake. With the help of our team at BTF and the visual of two children holding hands, representing the project, we brought Project CATE to life and started running.
I believe on the second or third week after the earthquake, not even a month since we started working on this project, help started pouring from all directions, and every door we knocked on turned out to be positive for the sustainability of the project. Just as promised, BTF fully committed to working with us in every stage of the project, from creating Web pages to raising funds and launching campaigns. At this point, the question of how BTF or TPF would transfer the funds they collected in Turkey, in cooperation with which organizations came up. In response to this, the problem-solving President Meryem Tuncel suggested, “We have our own foundation,” and brought up the Çukurova University-Industry Collaboration Foundation (ÇÜSİVAK). BTF and ÇÜSİVAK Trustee Boards held a meeting immediately and both sides agreed to collaborate. Thus, all the missing pieces of the project were in place: our land, our building, our university, our foundation, our scientific associations, and our invaluable funds that would provide us with funding.
When we were confident that the project was established and ready to start, we started looking for someone to help us in managing such a project. At this point, Serhan Seçmen, a Turkish businessperson, who was born in the earthquake region and living in the United States, who had served as an executive in significant institutions, joined our group. He reminded us that the real problem would be sustainability and that fundamental problems awaited such projects.
While we were delighted to have Mr. Serhan on board, another significant development occurred, and thus, concerns about the sustainability of the project disappeared. Philanthropist businessperson Hüsnü Özyeğin had heard about the project from Ayla Göksel, the Chair of the Özyeğin Foundation Board of Directors, and immediately came to Adana and personally told the President, “We are part of this project, and we will take it a step further and turn it into a Center of Excellence. Thus, we will establish a center that will serve our children affected by this disaster and future adverse developments. We will become a leader in our country in this regard.”
We only had to find a name for this initiative and reach out to patients in the field to provide the service. Finding a name was not a challenge because our goal was clear; we wanted to help and support “children’s wellness.” Therefore, our name had to be “Child Wellness Center.”
During this time, we reached out to the presidents of all scientific associations focused on amputation and prosthetics. The key issue was how to find the right patients in the field, without giving them false hope or make unwarranted demands that could potentially overwhelm the system, all while avoiding any form of exploitation. We came up with the idea of reaching these patients through doctors and healthcare workers who were following them, and for this purpose, we established the https://cocukprotez.org/ website.
Only a month had passed from when the project was first envisioned as a dream to the creation of the https://cocukprotez.org/ website, and we had now become capable of receiving patients who could apply from the field. However, we had not considered who would be responsible for handling these patients at the center, guiding them, generating responses for them, making payments, and managing the accounting. As always, with the invaluable help of dear Meryem, we formed the Board of Directors of the Child Wellness Center in a very short time, and then began to establish the Executive Committee. With the appointment of dear Bekir Aslaner to lead the Executive Committee, we reached a much faster stage.
In the meantime, it’s crucial to note a significant detail. To create a prosthesis for a patient who has lost a limb, a minimum of 6-12 weeks must pass after the surgery. In some cases, this period can extend to up to 6 months. Therefore, the need for prostheses for patients who lost their limbs in the earthquake was only just beginning, and we were now ready.
So, with this project, we are ready to assist our children in health, prosthetics, education, psychological support, and vocational training, and reintegrate them into social life when the need for prostheses arises. We are also developing collaborations with voluntary philanthropic organizations and scientific institutions both domestically and internationally to ensure that our children are not affected in possible future disasters.