Lake Norman charity helps Afghan child heal

jmarusak@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 8, 2014 

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    To donate toward a custom all-terrain wheelchair for Sara to use in Afghanistan, visit and write “Sara’s chair” in the comment box when contributing.

Bullets riddled 11-year-old Sara’s body during an attack in Afghanistan last year in which two of her family members were killed.

Sara lay paralyzed from the chest down in a NATO hospital in Kabul after the attack.

She remembers how she couldn’t sit up, let alone shake your hand. Her head hurt, she said, and she felt dizzy all the time.

But the hospital knew of a nonprofit humanitarian organization in the Lake Norman area that helps Afghan children receive donated medical care, said Solace for the Children’s Lake Norman branch coordinator, Sandy Tabor-Gray.

Solace for the Children has an office in Kabul and since 2007 has assisted at least 300 children. The group provides medical care of all kinds and gives the children time to heal while living with Lake Norman families.

Three months ago, Solace welcomed Sara, a frail 50 pounds at the time.

Sara is fluent in Farsi and Dari but knew only a word or two of English before she showed up at the home of her host family, Mark Jackson and Gracie Hemphill of Huntersville.

Now she speaks full sentences in English, weighs a healthier 57 pounds and has dropped her initial shyness, revealing a confident girl who loves to tell her story to crowds.

She plans to write a book about her experiences when she returns home later this month or early February, she said, in hopes of inspiring other children to never give up.

Solace asked that Sara’s real name not be used to avoid harm to her family in Afghanistan.

“I thought maybe I die,” Sara, who is Muslim, said of when the bullets struck her. “And now I’m so happy. My Allah, my God, has helped me.”

“Now I’m so excellent!” she exclaimed after her workout with physical therapist Kevin Kucko at K2 Sports Therapy and Performance in Mooresville.

Specialists at Davis Medical Center’s Wound Healing Center in Statesville tended to her wounds after she arrived from Afghanistan. Ten volunteer nurses from Huntersville and elsewhere helped change the dressing on her wounds twice a day. Kucko’s wife, Kerry, who is a nurse with a specialty in wound care, now changes Sara’s dressings.

Kucko, who is executive director at K2, has worked on building Sara’s strength during the week, plus some weekend days at the couple’s home in Cornelius.

Kucko, former director of rehabilitation at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville, is a longtime Solace volunteer who’s helped about 40 children through the organization. He’s raising money for a $3,000 custom all-terrain wheelchair for Sara to use in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, he encouraged Sara, pull-up after pull-up.

“Give me three more,” he said near the session’s end.

“No, I’m tired,” Sara replied.

“Would you do that for me?” Kucko urged.

“Two,” Sara replied.

“OK, two,” Kucko said.

“I make four,” Sara responded and had no problem doing them, her hands far stronger than when she arrived in America.

While Sara completed her day’s rehabilitation, her host family and Tabor-Gray recounted the girl’s experiences during her stay:

Sara has played with the Charlotte Rollin’ Bobcats wheelchair basketball team. She’d never held a basketball before, but sank 192 shots into a lowered net.

She’s attended a mosque in Charlotte with a family from Mooresville. She takes English classes, and her favorite new drink is sweet tea.

She attended a Barbie doll party, watched a performance of “The Nutcracker” at Mooresville High School and met the girl who played the Sugar Plum Fairy. She watched “Flight of the Butterflies” at the IMAX at Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte.

But she also insists on helping in the kitchen and dusting around the house of her host family, Hemphill said.

Sara knows she’ll probably never walk again, although she’s never one to say never. That is for Allah to decide, she said.

But, she said, “I feel so good because I am strong. I’m no longer scared. I’m so thankful.”

She’s thankful, she said, for her host family, for the Kuckos, for Solace. She’s thankful for all that America has given her, she said, and wants to give back by helping other children however she can.

Her message to them, she said, is “to be strong, to go to school, to help Afghanistan.”

“She has a real heart to help other people,” Tabor-Gray said. “Just having that heart, she’ll go back and make a difference in her country.”

She’s “going to paint a different picture” than what some Afghans might think of America, Tabor-Gray said.

Sara showed up for Tuesday’s workout in purple velour athletic wear. A sequined star was on the front of her jacket.

“Because she is one,” Hemphill said as she watched Sara work out in her wheelchair.

Marusak: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @jmarusak

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