“Nothing resists a human will that stakes its very existence upon the achievement of its purpose.”
Benjamin Disraeli, Former Prime Minister Of England
Four year old Francisca was frightened. She liked the man with the kind face. But her swollen hand hurt and she did not understand why she had to leave her parents. When her father kissed her good-by she clung to him tearfully. As Senor Pena held her he prayed that God would be good to his little daughter. She had been through so much for one so young.
As Ray Gatchalian gently took Francisca from her father he had to hold back his own tears. He knew how hard it would be if he had to turn his daughter over to someone, even if it were to get her the medical attention that would save her life. This was a difficult moment for everyone. But Ray knew that if the surgery was successful Francisca would be back soon–a healthy happy little girl.
Ray met Francisca and her father on one of his frequent visits to El Salvador. “I fell in love with her,” Ray says. “It was so sad to see her small hand swollen with cancer. There were no medical facilities in El Salvador that could help her. I thought of my daughter and how lucky we are to live in America. I had to do something!”
Ray made a commitment to bring Francisca to the United states for the highly specialized surgery she needed. As he began his mission of mercy his passion attracted other people who wanted to help.
First, he worked with government officials and social workers to cut through red tape. His energy and dedication inspired them to make the extra effort necessary to get the job done quickly. He found someone who would donate transportation. Another provided a home for Francisca before and after the operation. A doctor and staff of six at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, agreed to perform the surgery without charge.
When all the arrangements were made Ray returned to El Salvador to get Francisca. He carried the tearful child on the plane and flew with her to San Francisco. The story has a very happy ending. The surgery was successful. The useless, bloated, appendage became a healthy, fully functioning hand. Francisca is back home with her family, laughing and playing thanks to the deep personal commitment of Ray Gatchalian.
Ray earns his living as a fire fighter in Oakland, California. He is a fourteen year veteran and is captain of a fire station in the downtown area. In his “spare time” Ray works with young people, speaks for civic and business groups,writes and makes award-winning films. His moving short film, Survival Run has won 32 national and international awards. It is about two runners, one blind and one sighted. In No One’s Shadow, describes the history of Filipinos in America. His film, Unheard Voices, is about the children of El Salvador.
In 1985 the Kellogg Foundation awarded Ray a three year fellowship in leadership. Recipients of this prestigious grant participate in intensive study groups on world problems and go on fact collecting expeditions all over the globe. Recently he decided to concentrate his efforts on the problems of Central America.
The first time I met Ray I was immediately struck by his quiet confidence. His deep personal power shows in his walk, his handshake and his voice. With a boyish grin and a sprinkling of gray hair, 43 year old Ray Gatchalian looks like a born leader. If you told him that, he’d laugh, he is a very humble man Ray believes that few people are born leaders. He says “People think you have to be anointed in some way, or you have to be born into a particular situation to be a leader. Let’s face it most of us learn to be leaders, we learn to make a difference.”
“I have found that a large percentage of the population operates under a dangerous illusion,” he told me, ” the illusion that the world’s problems are too big and too complex for one individual to make a difference. But I believe one person can make a difference. My Dad always told me, ‘We’re here to inspire each other, to bring out the best in each other, and the only way we can do that is to care about each other.”
Can the commitment of just one person really make a difference? Can it inspire others? Ray says, “You have to act on what you believe. When you do that, then people respond. Sometimes I wonder, ‘what am I doing this for? Shouldn’t I just be making money, getting a big house and a better car?’ But the more I get involved with Francisca and the other children we’ve brought from Central America the more I know that I have riches beyond anything I could buy. I hope other people will lend a hand and become involved too.”
Ray’s commitment has touched many hands: the hands that applaud and wipe away tears at showings of his films; the hands of teen aged audiences, eagerly raised to ask hard and searching questions; the hands that reach out to his, seeking rescue from war and from the desperation of an existence without purpose or hope.
In his own strong hands Ray Gatchalian holds a small photo. It shows a beautiful little girl from El Salvador, a healthy child with two hands of her own two hands that prove what just one leader’s commitment can do.
2016 update: My friend Ray died in a truck accident in the mountains of El Salvador. He was doing what he loved doing, helping children. Ray Gatchalian was a committed leader who made a huge difference in this world. “A life well lived.” is what I would say to my friend if I could see him one more time. We are all diminished by his passing. But we can all be better people by emulating his example of commitment. I dedicate this year of 2016 to Ray. SMB 1-16