Jaime Yrastorza, 86, an accomplished American philanthropist, was born in the Philippines to a surgeon and a dentist. When he was 10, just hours after Pearl Harbor, Japan bombed the Philippines, then a United States colony. The U.S. surrendered, beginning a three-year Japanese occupation. By the end of those three years, Yrastorza’s mother and sister were dead and his father was on the run. Determined to forge a better life, he applied to American colleges and got into the University of Minnesota–Duluth. He studied dentistry, married a nurse, had five kids, moved to Colorado, and worked as a maxillofacial surgeon for 35 years.
In his late 50s, Yrastorza joined a charity trip to Ecuador to operate on children with cleft lips and palates; upon his return, he decided to do similar work in the Philippines. Yrastorza learned that, in underdeveloped countries, one in 400 babies have facial deformities, compared to one in 1,000 in developed countries. He knew that those children often become malnourished and develop ear problems that can lead to deafness, then death. Those who survive are shunned, drop out of school, and can't get work.
In 1989, Yrastorza took a small group of surgeons to the Philippines to fix Filipino kids' deformities, inaugurating a non-profit called Uplift Internationale that he still shepherds today. In 2012, Yrastorza was honored as an Asian-American hero of Colorado, an opportunity he used to discuss what American citizenship means to him: "Immigrants come because this is where the opportunities are," he says. So far, Uplift Internationale's volunteers have performed about 1,000 no-cost surgeries (Yrastorza has personally done about 100), mostly on preschoolers. "But it isn't so much about the numbers," he says. "We're there because of the one patient we were able to take care of."
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