When Redbird Jerry Wirth ’88 was inducted into the College of Business Hall of Fame at Illinois State’s 2004 Homecoming, he had no idea the connection he made that weekend with fellow alum Mike Richard ’75 would turn into a project that would help children around the world.
At the time, Richard was treasurer of the McDonald’s Corporation and of Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), a nonprofit organization that works to improve the health and well-being of children and their families. At the very same time, Wirth was interested in starting a charity with the American ambassador to Latvia, a country Wirth had grown to call home after living and working there for many years. The two Redbirds put their brains together and the idea of Ronald McDonald House Charities Latvia was born.
“I talked with Mike about getting support from Ronald McDonald House Charities, and he kindly sent a team of people to Latvia to look at the need and to understand the community and the country better,” said Wirth. “Latvia is a very small country, and it seemed like the best way forward to align with a charity with an excellent reputation and to have a good friend in the U.S. to help us along the way. From his side, I believe it was the strength of our ISU connection that made him a believer. It has proven to be a very good collaborative effort.”
After Wirth founded the charity, the Latvian Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, a semi-truck custom-built into a mobile clinic, was launched in 2010 and since then has traveled across the country with doctors from the state children’s hospital delivering diagnostic care on demand. They currently have contracts with over 25 doctors who specialize in different areas of medical care. When a community expresses that they have children needing medical attention, the needed doctors travel with the Care Mobile to the children and perform the necessary diagnostics for free.
“We have a simple mission to improve the health and well-being of Latvia’s children,” said Wirth. “We address the problem of access to healthcare by delivering the healthcare directly to the children.”
Since the conversation that took place between Wirth and Richard in 2004, the charity has grown tremendously, and by mid-year, they will treat their 50,000th child in Latvia.
“Treating 50,000 children demonstrates that Mike Richard, the charity in Chicago, and their faith in us was well-founded and that our performance is best in class. This little start-up charity has become an institution that is well recognized in Latvia for providing basic, diagnostic healthcare on a large scale. From a business perspective, the best-in-class performance includes operations, management, and governance, and is the key that unlocks corporate donor funding for our work.”
While the charity was thriving in Latvia, a neighboring country began to face difficulties. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Wirth saw an opportunity to use a similar mobile medical care truck to help Ukrainian refugees. After acquiring a truck that was no longer in use from a partner charity in Germany, Wirth drove the truck to the Poland border with Ukraine, filled it with medical supplies, and trained Polish paramedics on how to use it. He and his colleagues then entered Ukraine, where they set up the truck near the border to treat refugees as they were fleeing the country.
“After a bombing, there would be thousands of refugees pooling near the border, where they would have to wait to get into Poland,” said Wirth. “With these thousands of people under tremendous stress, inevitably, there was going to be health problems, but there was no medical care available. So, the Polish paramedic team with the truck from Latvia was treating anyone and everyone from elderly grandmothers to infants.”
However, Wirth and the team soon realized that a mobile medical truck was not necessary for this particular work because the refugees were bringing themselves to the fixed point where the truck was set up. So, the team transferred the first aid service inside the train station at the border, leaving the medical care truck available for other work in Ukraine.
Wirth then contacted the founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), an organization that provides the first point of care to victims of war and natural disasters, to find a use for the truck within Ukraine. An agreement was signed to turn the truck into a mini field hospital within the country.
“It has changed entirely from being the place where refugees get treatment to now, heading to the East of Ukraine, where the fighting is, and it is extracting civilian casualties from bombings and resuscitating, stabilizing them, in order to transfer the patients to a hospital away from the fighting,” said Wirth. “It’s a more dangerous mission, but it is also more urgently needed, and it is literally saving lives.”
At the moment, the mobile medical truck is operating in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv where the first mass graves of civilians were discovered. As this life-saving work continues in Ukraine, Wirth hopes to soon return to assist with operations. He notes that this work to assist Ukrainian refugees came together as everyone in Latvia and other surrounding countries is doing their part to help.
“We have this fantastic truck, a very supportive board, and wonderful partners in Ukraine. It’s a bit like fate,” said Wirth. “We just took advantage of the opportunity to do something good once we saw it.”
What started out as a conversation with a fellow alum at Redbird Homecoming has grown into a tremendous project that is saving the lives of both Latvian children and Ukrainian refugees.
“The most personally rewarding thing I’ve done, apart from having a family, is to be actively involved in the work of this charity. I’ve found that my work here makes me feel that I am doing my part to improve my community,” said Wirth. “Happily, I’ve also found that doing charity work does not mean you’re sacrificing something professionally. Actually, it can mean the opposite, as the adage has it, ‘to do well by doing good.’”
As a key value of the University, civic engagement is a lifelong responsibility that allows Redbirds, like Wirth, to become engaged global citizens working toward the betterment of society. Those interested in becoming civically engaged and making a #RedbirdImpact can visit the Center for Civic Engagement’s website or look for ways to be a part of #RedbirdImpact Month.