Malibu student shares experience with volunteering in the Mending Kids program 

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Seventeen-year-old Layla Polito (fourth from right) was a part of the surgical team that traveled to Guatemala in March. Polito assisted doctors in nearly 75 surgeries. Contributed photos.

17-year-old Layla Polito assisted in providing nearly 75 kids medical treatment in Guatemala 

A yearly doctor’s check-up or dentist appointment can be easy and convenient for most, but for students such as Layla Polito, who took a trip with a volunteer medical team to Guatemala, she realized it’s not easy for kids around the world.

“The group that I went with is called Mending Kids, and we did a screening for about 105 kids, but only 75 kids actually needed surgeries the rest just needed to go to the clinical doctor, but the 75 kids that did need surgeries, I took them and filled out forms with all their information, had their parents to sign to approve the surgery and then the rest of the week we spent doing surgeries,” Polito said.

Mending Kids provides free life-saving surgical care to sick children worldwide by deploying volunteer medical teams and supporting communities to become medically self-sustaining. Since 2005, they have mended thousands of children in 70 countries, including the U.S.

The former Malibu High student transferred to Muse School in Calabasas and heard about the program through her teacher.

“My teacher brought it to my attention and offered to bring a few students of his, so I decided to sign up along with a few other kids, but only two of us got picked to go,” she said.

After volunteering with the program, Polito realized how fortunate it is to truly have those resources available.

 “They don’t have surgeons that specialize in some of the things that they’re struggling with in Guatemala, so they can’t get these surgeries done until our surgeons fly out to perform on them, so I was thankfully fortunate to be able to go,” Polito said.

Polito said they completed about 75 surgeries from ages 1-17.

“We were doing ears, noses, and throat surgeries, so whether that’s a frenectomy or deviated septum or tongue surgeries, anything like that, we were doing that for about a week and they were completely free,” Polito said.

Through a network of partner agencies and previous surgical missions, the nonprofit assesses needs and identifies equipment necessary to facilitate surgeries in the U.S. and globally.

Polito said prior to the trip, she hadn’t thought much about going into the medical field but after doing a career aptitude test, to determine what field she would be best in, it turned out to be in the medical field.

“I didn’t know if I would like it or not, but the trip really made me feel like it’s definitely a possibility,” Polito said. “It [the program] made me a better person. It made me feel really selfless, and it made me realize that I really liked helping kids.”

“I enjoyed spending time with kids. I’d play with them and get them prepared for the surgery like blowing bubbles for them or dancing with them, just getting them prepared and not being as nervous,” Polito said.

Polito said the only challenge was the language barrier.

“I don’t know any Spanish at all, and most of them only spoke Spanish, so that made it a little difficult, especially for the young kids, but for the kids that were from ages 3 to 7, they honestly, all they want is attention, and for you to play with them and hang out with them, which made my job easier,” Polito said.

“I learned that kids in Guatemala, they’re so insanely well behaved, and they didn’t show any fear,” Polito said. “They were so insanely grateful, and I’ve never seen bigger smiles on kids’ faces — they were really grateful. They all wrote us letters when we were done; it was really sweet.”

Mending Kids also recruits surgical teams from local hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for surgical missions all over the world. 

Mending Kids board members and member of the Guatemala surgical team pediatric ENT surgeon Dr. Ayal Willner said it was great to have Polito on the team. 

“Layla was fantastic, she was enthusiastic, she wanted to learn, and she was interested,” Willner said. “The biggest thing is that we believe that we can help kids in a very non-judgmental and inclusive way so that when they come in, they are the same patients as patients we treat someone at home; they are great human beings who have less than we do but are not less than we are.”

When asked if she would volunteer again, Polito said, “100 percent [I would] — it was definitely life-changing for me.”

Mending Kids recently celebrated its 18th year in Malibu with a gala. In addition to another year of providing life-saving surgeries to children around the world, the nonprofit is on track to “mending” its 5,000th patient. As of April 6, 4,975 kids from 71 countries, and 155 missions completed surgical missions in 2023 so far including Tanzania, Cambodia, and Guatemala.

The next mission is the Nicaragua Interventional Cardiology Mission, from April 15-22.

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere. With a population of 6 million, 48 percent live below the poverty line; 80 percent subsist on less than $2 dollars a day. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for all ages and a diagnosis of a heart condition, such as mitral valve stenosis, is grim news that offers little in the way of hope.

This year, Mending Kids is also hosting their ongoing fundraiser, “Hike to Mend,” honoring the journey that a parent takes to gain access to surgical care for their child. 

Hike to Mend was inspired by Joel’s aunt, who traveled clear across Tanzania to try to save her young orphaned nephew, who was dying of congenital heart disease. Unable to afford the bus fare, she hitchhiked with Joel in tow for a full week, traveling over 700 miles to reach their cardiac mission. Their goal is to raise $50,000. For more info on the event or program visit, events.mendingkids.org