"I live near Kennedy Boulevard," said Jude Tiner, the Bayonne resident who devoted most of the last year to finding a miracle for Meraly. "We would walk to Broadway - just two long blocks - and she would have to stop and squat to catch her breath. Now, I can't keep up with her. She wants to go everywhere and see everything, and she has the energy to do it."
Meraly, who is scheduled to return to the Philippines by the end of the year, will hold her 9th birthday party in Bayonne, a birthday many did not believe she would live to see because of her condition.
Born on Dec. 24, 1998, Meraly suffered from a rare heart ailment called "Tettology of Fallot." Her heart has two holes in it and has other areas in the heart that could only be repaired through surgery.
"She also has three narrowed arteries into the heart but doctors say that after the surgery the flow of blood with open them up," Tiner said.
Tiner, a Vietnam War veteran, had heard about orphans in the Philippines through his church, City Chapel, and decided he would go there to see for himself last year. When he got there, he discovered the orphan Meraly, and knew he had to help find a cure for her.
Once back in the United States, Tiner found some of the answers in Bayonne, where businesses and organizations helped raise the funds to bring Meraly to the United States for the life-saving surgery.
A longshoreman employed on the New Jersey docks, Tiner has used his volunteer positions to help orphans and to seek funding for the operation that Meraly desperately needed.
"If she hadn't gotten the surgery, doctors said she would not likely live to age 16," he said.
Help has arrived from several sources, including The Gift of Life Foundation, a project of the Rotary Clubs of District 7490. Tiner and the foundation managed to get St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Paterson to perform the surgery for free.
"St. Joseph's Children's Hospital agreed to provide the medical care at no cost to the family through our Gift of Life program," said Raymond Hough, foundation chairman.
St. Joseph's took a token flat fee from the foundation, and the hospital provided housing and meals for the child and her guardian while Meraly was a patient.
Tiner said Council President Vincent Lo Re put him in contact with Harold Kawalek, who helped make some of the arrangements.
Harold Kawalek, chair of the local Rotary said the Gift of Life program was started in 1986 and has provided needed surgery for more than 473 children world wide.
"In the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region, ongoing agreements between Rotary 7460 district and various area hospitals have ensured that children in the Gift of Life program receive all surgical and post-operative care for a flat fee of $6, 000," Kawalek said. "This amount represents a small percentage of what most hospital would normally collect for such procedures."
Kawalek said called the outpouring of generosity overwhelming. So many people donated so much that the Rotary not only had enough to cover the $6,000 cost for Meraly, but the program is coming close to having enough to help another child.
He noted that 100 percent of donations go to the children and their families.
"Neither Rotary nor the Gift of Life deducts any administrative costs from the money we collect," he said. "As volunteers, involved Rotarians and other generous individuals make up any additional expenses - everything from family meals to carfare to goys for the children - out of their own pockets."
But he said many children still desperately need lifesaving surgery.
"A few years ago, my wife and I hosted a mother and child from Ukraine, the second of four families we have hosted to date," he said.
In that case, a child's life was also saved as a result of the needed surgery supplied by the Gift of Life program.
In November, the local Rotary district went a team of doctors, nurses, support staff and equipment to Honduras where they assisted a volunteer surgeon to perform about 40 surgeries.
"While sending our doctors abroad does help to defray the cost of these procedures even further, such an undertaking is still quite costly," he said. "The Gift of Life relies on the generosity of all those who contribute in order to make such programs possible."
Kawalek thanked all those who helped Meraly and said people can still donate to help other children through Rotary District 7490.
Meraly went into surgery in early October.
"She felt better right away," Tiner said. "After a few days, her energy level rose. Now she goes everywhere and I'm the one who has to keep up with her."
Meraly has traveled a bit since then, spending a week in Florida at a missionary retreat and then several days in California, where she got to visit Disneyland.
She will return shortly to Bayonne where people associated with Meraly will be part of a birthday celebration at the Assumption auditorium on West 23 rd Street and Kennedy Boulevard on Dec. 23. This will run from 7:30 p.m. to midnight, Tiner said.