The pungent smell of sickness hung in the thick, humid air of the small shack in El Salvador. A girl named Rosita lay in the makeshift bed. She’d been wasting away for weeks. Her lithe body consisted of little more than skin pulled tight over her tiny skeleton; she weighed only 40 pounds.
Jerry Burger watched with sadness as the priest gave the young girl her last rites; her family wept.
Burger wiped his brow and listened as the interpreter told him that Rosita would soon pass. Her parents were unable to raise enough money for a simple medical treatment.
Teenage girls aren’t supposed to weigh 40 pounds. They are supposed to be laughing with friends and dancing with the joy of youth. Rosita lay in her bed, miserable and preparing to die.
“You mean this girl could live for $1,000?” Burger remembers thinking. His heart broke.
As a young boy walking home from school, Burger used to pass the Waukee car dealership. He remembers looking through the plate glass windows at the shiny cars and how his heart would race.
As an adult, Burger was diligent, hardworking and fortunate enough to finally be able to collect some of those classic cars. He built an oversized garage and collected Camaros, muscle trucks and Mustangs to his heart’s content.
But eight years ago, after going on a mission trip to El Salvador with Waukee’s St. Boniface Church, Burger was forever changed. He’s been back nearly 30 times now.
Over the years, Burger has been selling his classic cars and using the money to build cinderblock houses. When the houses are finished, he gives them to grateful families in El Salvador. The houses are warm, dry and built to last. For people who only make $3 per day and are used to walking more than an hour just to get clean water, these houses — equipped with flushing toilets, showers, ceramic tile, appliances and fully-furnished with everything — are quite a treat.
On a recent trip, as Burger prepared to return home, he heard a small voice call out to him, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
It was Rosita. He had forgotten something. As she laid on what would have been her death bed, and as he made preparations to ensure she would get her medical treatment, he had attempted to raise her spirits by telling her that the next time she saw him they would dance, because that is what 15-year-olds are supposed to be doing.
As her sister started the music, Rosita offered her hand.
Jerry Burger’s garage isn’t as full as it once was, but his heart is spilling over.