A little girl stared up at Mary Stitt from a dirt ground a world away. Only 7 years old, the Nigerian girl couldn't walk, couldn't go to school, couldn't play with her friends. A bout with polio had left her disabled and facing a bleak future.
Although almost 80 years and a cultural shift divided them, Stitt said she knew she had to help.
"She looked so sad, and that would be her whole life -- sitting on the ground," she said.
That moment on a Rotary International trip to Nigeria to eradicate polio a few years ago inspired the 87-year old Arlington Heights woman to spend $150 to buy the girl a wheelchair, helping her build a life beyond her roots as a young polio survivor in a struggling country.
But, Stitt wasn't done.
She came home and helped write a grant, raising thousands of dollars for an organization that makes wheelchairs for other polio survivors like that little girl.
Now, Stitt is planning her eighth Rotary-sponsored trip, set to leave in early December, to help vaccinate children against polio -- a disease that may be gone from most of the world, but that still infects thousands of people in a handful of countries -- and to help improve the lives of polio survivors.
Stitt, or Grandma Mary as the children call her abroad, has lived through several polio epidemics and seen the heartbreak the disease can cause, whether that's here in America or on the dirt roads of Nigeria. When she was in seventh grade, a classmate came back to school one week with news that the disease had taken her sister over the weekend, it was that quick.
Today, the disease only exists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, where Stitt will make her fourth trip in a few weeks.
Two drops of liquid on the tongue -- that's all the vaccine it takes to change a child's life, she said.
"They know I'm there to help and they are just so thankful," she said.
With age, Stitt's hands have grown too arthritic to dole out those drops. But she will mark the fingers of vaccinated children -- proof of their health that allows them into school, another of Stitt's passions.
Stitt spent 37 years in education, 25 of them as principal at Olive-Mary Stitt Elementary School in Arlington Heights, which was named for her when she retired.
She'll go anywhere
Stitt has made the most of her retirement and continued good health.
Over the past 20 years she has made nearly 50 philanthropic international trips. She helped send more than 600 boxes of books to a school in South Africa. She wrote grants to obtain cleaner water for people in Guatemala. She went on medical missions in Haiti. She helped build an orphanage in Belarus. She laid bricks for a school in Zimbabwe. She spoke to women's groups in Cambodia. The list goes on.
Each trip is marked with a red pin on a world map in Stitt's home and every journey is chronicled in detailed journals she keeps.
Her home is filled with gifts and souvenirs from the many countries she's been to, each with a story of someone she helped, a connection she made.
Stitt won the Arlington Heights' Hearts of Gold Volunteer Award in 2000. Twelve years later, she is undeterred by her age and said she couldn't imagine spending her time any other way.
"It keeps me sharp," said Stitt, who has 5 children, 11 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. "How dull would it be just to sit around?"
Stitt, who walks ever morning, joked that carrying books around for so many years as an educator has kept her in good shape.
"I don't think she'd ever be happy to just sit down and watch TV -- it's just not in her makeup," said neighbor and fellow Rotary member Roylene Gallas. "I couldn't even dream of keeping up with her. I always tell her family that I want to be like Mary when I grow up."
Asked what's left on her to-do list, Stitt joked, "I haven't been to Antarctica."
Helping the survivors
In her international work, her efforts to eradicate polio and further education often intersect.
On one of her trips to Nigeria, for example, she met Ayuba Gufwan, a polio survivor who was given his first wheelchair at age 17 and then finally was able to start his education. He eventually got a college degree, then returned home to his hometown of Jos to help other polio survivors.
Gufwan's mission has turned into Wheels of Hope, which has given thousands of wheelchairs to polio survivors. That's when she bought the wheelchair for the 7-year-old girl and then wrote the grant request that got the group funding to buy more wheelchairs.
The wheelchairs are free for polio survivors and Stitt only asks for one promise in return -- that the children will go to school.
"You can look at their faces and see that there's hope," she said. "Education is an opportunity. Here we have an opportunity to go to school every day and sometimes we don't realize how lucky we are."
Her big hope is to see the worldwide eradication of polio in her lifetime, a feat, which according to the Centers for Disease Control, has only been achieved with one other disease in history, smallpox.
Still, experts say that it's a feasible dream.
When Rotary International's campaign to eradicate polio started in 1985, 350,000 people were diagnosed with it each year -- almost a thousand children a day.
The number is down to a few hundred cases globally. Through the years, Rotary has contributed $1.2 billion to the effort and the organization has committed another $75 million over the next three years, by which time Stitt will be 90, and she said, still working toward the goal.
"We have an aggressive emergency action plan in place and we're looking at being able to interrupt transmission of the disease in the next couple of years," said Dr. Carol Pandack, director of the PolioPlus program.
"That would be wonderful," Stitt said, quietly contemplating.
"Life is hard enough without having disease to worry about."
Oct. 24 marked World Polio Day, which Pandack and Stitt said is a reminder of how far the mission has come, but that the fight isn't over.
"As long as there's still one case, it can spread," Stitt said.