On the edge of downtown Boise sits a large grayish-brown stone building topped with a rust-colored roof, its facade broken up by a long bas-relief sign and two sets of cherry-red double doors. : The awnings above are emblazoned with the words "El Korah Shrine" and a logo comprised of a scimitar, the bust of a sphinx and crescent moon surrounding a star. That building is a gathering place for local Shriners, a service organization that boasts 400,000-plus members around the world. But it wasn't until the Shriners opened the doors of the El Korah Shrine to host some of the 2012 Treefort Music Fest's biggest acts that many Boiseans discovered what a hidden gem the temple is. And what many still didn't know is what lies at the heart of the organization's mission: The Shriners Hospitals for Children.
To be a Shriner (short for the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine), a man must first be a Freemason or Mason--though not all Masons are Shriners, all Shriners must be Masons and must, in fact, have achieved the rank of Master Mason before petitioning to become a Shriner. Shortly after the Shriners fraternity was founded in 1872, its members began looking at adopting an official charity. They had donated money to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and, in 1915, they donated to war relief. But in 1920, they elected to use the $2 annual assessment from each Shriner (members now pay $5 per year) to support the establishment of the first Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Shreveport, La., and to create an endowment fund. Since that time, the Shriners Hospitals for Children system has grown to include a network of 22 nonprofit hospitals in Canada, the U.S. (the closest to Boise being in Portland, Ore.; Spokane, Wash.; and Salt Lake City, Utah), Mexico and Panama.
Though different hospitals specialize in different areas, the Shriners hospitals system offers orthopaedic care, burn care and care for spinal cord injuries--exclusively for children and completely free of charge.
Kay Weber-Ekeya, the public information officer at the Portland, Ore.-based Shriners hospital, explained some of the conditions that the facilities treat.
"Originally, we were treating kids with polio," Weber-Ekeya said, adding that once a cure for polio was found, the focus shifted to any diagnosis pertaining to bones, joints and muscles, such as congenital conditions like scoliosis and clubfoot. The Portland hospital alone has treated more than 700 cases of children with club feet, but Shriners facilities also treat injuries.
"[We treat] kids who have been backed over by a lawnmower and lost a leg, kids with sports injuries, kids who have been riding behind a motorboat and gotten their hand caught in a propeller," Weber-Ekeya said.
In cases like those, children go to the Shriners after emergency care for follow-up rehabilitation, physical therapy and even prosthetics, built on-site at the Portland hospital. They treat symptoms of cerebral palsy by helping children with range of motion, providing head arrays to allow for communication (nonverbal) or wheelchairs to give them some mobility and independence. The hospital also provides extensive care for children born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate, which includes repair, orthodontia and cosmetic work.
None of the work performed in any of the Shriners hospitals is inexpensive. Since the first hospital was founded, Shriners have spent more than $7 billion on construction and operating costs, including treatment, education and research.: Weber-Ekeya explained that the operating costs for the Portland Shriners hospital alone is about $30 million annually--the cost of the entire Shriners Hospitals for Children system is approximately $1.2 million per day, paid for through the endowment fund, donations, fundraising and the annual assessment paid by each Shriner.
Regardless of ethnicity, religion or their family's financial status, children up to age 18 receive care free of charge, although they will submit bills to a family's insurance carrier if applicable. And while treatment used to be reserved for underserved children or those whose families were unable to afford it, for the better part of the past 60 years, a child's financial status is irrelevant.
"Whether [a kid has] 10 cents or $10 million, we feel like we have some of the best pediatric specialists in our hospitals. As a parent, that's who I would want helping my kid," Weber-Ekeya said.
Jerry Reed, a Shriner from Boise, wanted that as well.
Reed's stepson Tim was born with bilateral club feet. As an infant (before Reed had even met Tim's mother), Tim underwent an expensive surgery to correct the condition. And although the now-17-year-old Tim is completely mobile, he does have some muscle weakness. While playing basketball at school, Tim fell and dislocated his kneecap and tore some ligaments in his leg.
"I got a hold of the Portland [Shriners] hospital and they said if I could get Tim there the next morning, they could get him in to see someone," Reed said. "Everybody there was great. It was a great experience."
At a recent ceremony at the El Korah Temple in which 14 new Shriners were inducted, it was with gravitas and pride that senior officials spoke to the new members about what they were encouraged to think of as "their hospitals." And while part of being a Shriner requires a commitment to the Shriners hospitals system, including fundraising and hospital visits, the requirements for a child to be treated within the system are minimal--as a matter of fact, there is only one.: "As long as it is a condition that the hospital can treat, we will treat any child," Weber-Ekeya said.
For more information on the Shriners Hospitals for Children, visit shrinershospitalsforchildren.org.