During his tour of duty in Iraq, Army Sgt. Johnny Kempen thought he'd seen everything, until he met a little girl who saw nothing at all.
Kempen noticed one day, as soldiers threw candy to children in a tense Baghdad neighborhood, a little girl standing out.
"Watching her trying to get the candy and not being able to get it, it was like watching a kitten or something trying to do it," he said. "It was hard to watch."
She was a 7-year-old girl named Zahraa, who was born with painful blistered corneas. After learning about her condition, Kempen decided he wanted to help. So he enlisted help from the tiny town of Crandon, Wis., close to where he grew up.
Giving the Gift of Sight
Even the town's smallest residents were big donors. Many of Crandon Elementary School's students donated funds to help Zahraa get her eyes repaired.
"I wanted to help because everyone deserves to see and have a good life," said fifth-grader Rayfield Tallier.
Another student imagined how difficult it would be for a child to be blind in the midst of a war.
"If it was on my street, I would just imagine me sitting in the corner crying, being scared for my life," said student Maisen West.
The students were able to raise $400 for Zahraa's cause. The local Lions Club raised an additional $7,000 and flew Zahraa and her grandmother to Wisconsin for the procedure.
The Eye Clinic of Wisconsin, located in Wausau, Wis., performed the corneal transplant surgery for free.
"Just think about it. That little girl is going to have the gift of sight," said Frank Bocek of the Crandon Lions Club.
Doctors operated on Zahraa's right eye earlier this month and plan operating on the left eye next month.
Afterward, Zahraa will fly home to Iraq. Her grandmother said she is eager to get home so she can see her mother and father for the first time.
"It's a miracle," Zahraa's grandmother said through a translator. "She will be very happy to see her friends, her family, her mother, her father, because she didn't have the chance to see the [facial] features. She doesn't know [what] they look like."
She and Zahraa thanked Kempen and everyone who helped give Zahraa the gift of sight.
Now, Kempen said he believes Zahraa will have very different and positive future.
"She'll be able to go to school and she will have a chance at life," he said.
For More Information
Those wishing to help Zahraa with financial assistance should make checks payable to:
Crandon Lions for the Zahraa Donations
Associated Bank of Crandon
P.O. Box 337
Crandon, WI 54520
Those wishing to contact Zahraa or offer support in other ways can contact:
President, Crandon Lions
Crandon Lions Club
P.O. Box 470
Crandon, WI 54520
Former President, Crandon Lions