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Halifax doctor gives needy Bolivian children a chance

The Donor: Dr. Ivar Mendez

The Gift: Creating the Ivar Mendez International Foundation

The Reason: To improve the lives of impoverished children in Bolivia.

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When Ivar Mendez immigrated to Canada from Bolivia as a teenager, his homeland was never far from his heart. Even after becoming a renowned neurosurgeon and chair of the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Dr. Mendez made frequent trips to Bolivia.

"During my travels to the country, I wanted to look at Bolivia in many respects and try to understand the country better," he recalled from his office in Halifax. He saw many needs but focused on one challenge in particular: malnutrition among children.

"One of the problems with children is that during the first five years of life they were not getting enough nutrition," he explained. "That means you have slower brain development."

He decided to do something and, six years ago, he began a breakfast program in a few isolated communities, buying supplies and having the food prepared by local people. Today, the program is in 24 schools and feeds several thousand students. He also recently launched Nutribarra, a snack bar made largely from quinoa, an Andean cereal that is loaded with vitamins and nutrients.

But that's not all. Dr. Mendez started a dental program as well, setting up clinics and staffing them with Bolivian dentists. He also launched an art program for children "because it stimulates the creativity of the children and I truly believe that change comes from within." And he now has a computer project called "One Laptop Per Child" which provides rugged, low-cost XO computers to Bolivian children and connects them with students in Nova Scotia.

Dr. Mendez funded most of the foundation on his own, at first, but he now relies on donors and an extensive network of volunteers. "I am a true believer that what makes life worth living is the contribution to others. And it has to be a contribution to the people who need it most and have the least," he said. "I don't see this as a very extraordinary thing. In my mind, once you realize the tremendous inequality in the world, the next logical step is to do something about it."

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