- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

ALIQUIPPA, Pa. (AP) - Bernie Mrusek riffles a box of unsharpened, wooden pencils — Eberhard Faber No. 3 Hard.

“Do they have advertising on them?” asks his wife, Ruth, “‘cause they’re usually more expensive.”

The retirees from Brighton Township don’t need hundreds of pencils. And even if they did, they could afford them.

But schoolchildren in rural Panamanian villages need pencils — and paper, notebooks, backpacks and more. They can’t afford them.

“Kids there have to pay for a piece of paper to do their homework,” Ruth said.

That’s why most Fridays — shortly after sunup — the Mruseks drive about 25 miles across the state line to Rogers, Ohio, to buy school supplies and other essentials at Rogers Community Auction and Market, one of the largest open-air flea markets in the tri-state area.

They’re among a platoon of pickers and packers marshaled by 69-year-old Tom McCormack of Raccoon Township, who for the past 15 years has almost single-handedly spearheaded efforts to improve quality of life in the environs of Chiriqui, Panama’s westernmost province, shepherding shipments of medical equipment, prostheses, clothing, school supplies and soccer balls to the city of San Jose de David.

Unlike some humanitarians who claim to have a “vision,” Tom basically stumbled on his tour de force while participating in a federally funded agricultural program to provide educational assistance to farmers in developing and transitional countries.

He and his wife, Linda, operate McCormack Apiaries Inc. on their rural property, where they manage beehives and specialize in honeybee products and pollination services.

For five years starting in 1994, Tom, a master beekeeper, participated in the United States Agency for International Development’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, applying his beekeeping expertise to assist Panamanian beekeepers in Chiriqui deal with aggressive Africanized honeybees, colloquially known as “killer bees.”

“I’m the only one who went back more than once,” Tom said.

Like industrious bees, Tom’s abuzz with energy; driven and focused.

“I look out my door in the morning,” said neighbor Tom DelTondo. “If Tom’s home, he’s up and moving until it’s dark. Non-stop, always doing something, always going somewhere. Picking stuff up.”

Words fly rapid-fire when Tom speaks about his work, which quickly evolved into a passion once he noticed the poverty and inequality in Panama’s rural versus urban areas.

Stung by the disparity, he couldn’t turn his back once the farm program ended. Panama, especially the area around David, would become his second home — a place he visits yearly, often spending six months at a time volunteering in a clinic where he helps to fit amputees with prosthetic feet, legs, arms and hands.

A medical mission launches

David is Panama’s third-largest urban area with a population of roughly 100,000, Tom said. A bustling city about 20 miles from Costa Rica, it’s a hub for Chiriqui’s commercial and agrarian activities — cattle farming, coffee, sugar, cacao and tropical fruit production. It boasts shopping centers, apartment buildings and condominiums, restaurants and nightlife. Tom rents a condo when he’s there.

But drive into the nearby Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range and the economic extremes are starkly apparent.

More than one-quarter of the country’s 3.5 million people lives in poverty, according to the Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization addressing global poverty. And nearly half of those living in rural areas, especially indigenous people, suffers from poverty.

A minimum-wage worker in some areas earns the equivalent of $2,080 U.S. dollars annually, according to Food for the Poor. A laborer, working eight hours in a sugar cane field, makes about $6 a day, Tom said. “And he’s working hard and happy to have a job.”

On his first Farmer-to-Farmer trips to Panama, Tom lived with one of the families participating in the beekeeping program. That’s when he became immersed in the country’s customs and culture — and learned Spanish.

“I live in the culture,” he said, making it easier to absorb than reading about it. “All you need is a passion to learn,” which pretty much sums up Tom’s approach to life.

It’s also when he noticed Chiriqui’s poor — many living in ramshackle structures with dirt floors, children sleeping on cardboard — needed help, too. Initially, he collected used clothing and shoes, shipping about 3,000 pounds the first time.

And then he noticed the old woman.

“I met a woman down there that walked with her hand up across her chest. I thought she had a shoulder problem, but found out she had a mastectomy.”

Embarrassed, she tried to conceal her appearance by covering her torso.

“And so I took down one breast prosthesis for her,” Tom said, “and about the same time I found a man that walked on two forked sticks out of the woods for crutches. And that started our medical mission.”

One breast prosthesis quickly multiplied into hundreds, along with prosthetic limbs, canes and crutches, walkers and wheelchairs, hospital beds, eyeglasses and hearing aids, medical supplies, wigs, adult diapers, linens — all donated and given free to Chiriqui’s residents, public hospitals, clinics and nursing homes.

In Panama, healthcare in public hospitals and clinics is free, Tom said, but people in rural areas have limited access. Facilities are too far or people have no way to get there. If they do, wait times are extended.

Panama doesn’t have government-supported aid programs like Social Security, Medicaid or Welfare, either, he said, making it hard for people of limited means to afford medical-assist devices and expensive prostheses. An above-the-knee leg can cost a minimum of $25,000, he said.

About 10 years ago, the nonprofit Thomas L. and Linda J. McCormack Foundation was launched to facilitate the mission, which June 9 shipped its 15th container jam-packed with supplies.

Tom, a humble man, deflects accolades about his work. The foundation wouldn’t exist, he said, without the help of volunteers — so many he can’t count — and other organizations such as the Butler District Lions, Limbs for Life of Oklahoma City, Global Links of Pittsburgh, Ellen Meadow Prosthetic Hand Foundation and Panamanian organizations like Lady Lions Club, Rotary Club and Eagles of Iron motorcycle club, all in David.

“Oh, we have lots of people in Beaver County that come with donations on a regular basis. Some of them are one-time donations or other people have their eye open all the time to see what they can find,” he said.

Tom accepts donations all year. He spreads the word by emailing friends, at meetings with his Vietnam veteran buddies, and the Beaver County farmers’ markets where he sells honey and related products and also displays pamphlets, photos and other information about the foundation.

Some people drop bags of stuff at his farm market tables in Beaver and Ambridge; others deliver goods to his house where he stores them in a 20-foot container in the backyard or a huge, red barn until ready to ship.

“We just have actually hundreds of people,” he said. “I couldn’t possibly fill 15, 40-foot containers — ocean-going containers — by myself. I do collect stuff, but I could never get that much. It’s all my people all around here that work for the McCormack Foundation collecting the medical items.”

Bernie and Ruth Mrusek are among his people. Tom calls them his “best scroungers.” They met at the farmers’ market in Beaver.

“Oh, Bernie and Ruth, they’re the best,” he said. “They come every week, almost every week they come with soccer balls and backpacks, that’s his specialty. And she comes with little kids’ clothes and material. We support a group of women down in Panama that make little baby blankets for the kids and they use all kinds of material for that and they also make quilts they give to the Indian kids. So they’re our best scroungers. They’re dedicated.”

‘God sent an angel’

June 9, Tom and Linda McCormack’s yard looked like a parking lot littered with pickups, SUVs, vans and cars. It was just past 8 a.m. and already 50 to 60 volunteers amassed to orchestrate what looked like chaos into an organized assembly to fill a 40x9-foot container that can hold approximately 25,000 pounds.

The container was delivered by D.T. Gruelle Co., a Moon Township-based shipping and transport company specializing in logistics, customs brokerage and freight forwarding. The past few years, Tom said, Gruelle has also paid part of the $5,000 shipping costs to Panama. Tom and Linda pay the rest out of their own pockets.

Volunteer packers, Tom said, “know what to do. Every possible nook and cranny has something in it. If you can get a hand in there, something’s going in there.”

Bill Laughner of South Beaver Township has been part of the packing team for four years.

“It’s fantastic,” he said of Tom’s mission. “What he does here is phenomenal.He does an excellent job of collecting all types of medical equipment. One of the biggest things he does is the artificial limbs in Panama as well as taking all this medical equipment. But he is able to fit the natives down there with these artificial limbs and be able to adapt them to their needs and I just think that’s fantastic.”

It took about two hours before not another thing could be stuffed into the container. It was trucked to a Baltimore port, and then loaded on a ship for transport to Panama, with expected arrival June 23 in Colon.

The container is trucked about 10 hours to David, where 40 to 50 local volunteers unload the goods to a warehouse for distribution.

Tom will arrive June 22, staying several weeks to oversee operations, assisted by David’s mayor. Tom’s quick to say that he pays for all of his own expenses — travel, lodging, food. Nothing comes from the foundation.

He’ll return to Panama in October and stay through March, while Linda remains home tending to the beekeeping business.

That’s when Tom gets to work fitting people with prostheses.

He’s upfront with amputees who come to the free-of-charge clinic.

“I’m not a doctor,” he tells them. Never studied orthotics and he’s not a certified prosthetician. He wouldn’t be permitted to do this work in the United States. Things are different in Panama.

But Tom knows a lot about mechanical engineering. He retired in 2000 from the former US Airways where he spent 33 years as a mechanic. He’s also friends with a prosthetician in West Virginia who shares his knowledge. One of Tom’s sons lost a leg as a teenager and wore a prosthesis, he said.

Some amputees travel eight and nine hours by bus to the clinic. Once there, some don’t have fare to return home. Tom gives them the money.

He says he’s fitted 272 legs, 48 hands, seven arms. Sometimes, especially with short-residual arm amputations, he crafts prostheses out of PVC pipe.

Most leg amputations are caused by diabetes or accidents. Hands and arms are lost to snake bites, errant machete swings in sugar cane fields or fishing with dynamite, he said. Birth defects account for amputations, too.

Fourteen is the youngest person he’s fitted; 94 the oldest — both legs.

Hundreds of women have received breast prostheses, fitted at a beauty shop.

The clinic is free and doesn’t ask for donations, but grateful recipients often give something — a bag of eggs, a coconut. One man waiting to be treated noticed how hot it was inside the tin-roofed structure. Tom told him it was only going to get hotter as the day progressed. The average temperature year-round is 90 with 80 percent humidity.

The man returned with an air-conditioner.

“The people are so happy,” Tom said. “They all come with hope — esperanza.”

They threw a surprise party for him, giving witness to his work saying, “God sent an angel.”

What’s been most gratifying?

“When I see a young girl come in, maybe 25 years old, and she has a young child maybe 10 or 11 years old with paralysis — they’re as stiff as a board, all twisted up — and we can fit them into a new wheelchair that tilts back and has head supports and chest supports and legs rests and with a few pillows and so forth, now she’s able to take him outside of the house.

“Or when I see a person walking on a new prosthesis, a leg prosthesis, that never had an opportunity for a leg and they’re just so happy, that’s what pays our bills.”

Tom turns 70 in November and acknowledged that some day, he’ll have to retire.

Right now, he has no intentions of doing so.

“As long as I’ve got my health, I feel good,” he said.

He still has drive, still has energy and backs it up by recounting a 9-hour hike he took on his last trip to Panama, when he ascended Baru volcano, Panama’s highest peak.

But has he tapped anyone to continue his mission?

“There’s nobody that crazy.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1C6wYiZ

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Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/

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