Muhammad Ali’s insatiable drive was to help strangers in need. This is what his daughter Hana wrote in 2011.
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was a heavyweight champion boxer, Olympian and one of the most revered sports heroes of the 20th century. One of his most popular quotes showed his thinking about charity and service: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
This concern for helping others led “The Greatest,” who passed away June 3, 2016, to cross paths with Health Partners International of Canada in 1997.
Recalled working with Ali
Upon learning of his death, John Kelsall, former president of HPIC (1993-2008), recalled the story of Muhammad Ali and HPIC working together to get medical relief to a Catholic nun and orphans in the Ivory Coast. “There was a brutal civil war going on in Liberia and over 200,000 people died. Those who could, escaped,” John said. Ivory Coast became home to 350,000 Liberian refugees.
One of the people who escaped was a sister who was, according to an Associated Press article, caring for 105 children, including 61 who were handicapped. An additional 400 children depended on her for food and medical care.
Sister Sponsa Beltran (1925-2016), an American nun in the Bernardine Franciscan order serving as a missionary in Liberia, had reached out to various people to help her. And Muhammad Ali heard her plea. Amazingly Ali died just two months after Sister Beltran, whose own life could have been a script for a great movie. One journalist who interviewed her a few years before her death, called her community of sisters “the Catholic Church’s answer to SEAL Team 6” (an elite American navy counter-terrorism unit).
Sister Beltran’s service in Africa
In a tribute in a Catholic newspaper, Sister Beltran’s life of service was described as follows: “She spent over 30 years (1970-2007) caring for the poor and disabled of Liberia, West Africa. She helped them to survive a 14-year civil war, a five-year exile in the Ivory Coast, and repatriation to the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, where she founded Our Lady of Fatima Rehab Center. Through the years, she faithfully served the Lord as she cared for thousands of children and adults who were disabled, resulting from birth injuries, disease and ferocious accidents. Today, there are a multitude of handicapped children and adults living in the U.S. and around the world who were abandoned by their families and who owe Sister Sponsa their lives due to her unending love, care and acceptance.”
Now back to the 1997 story and the HPIC connection to these two legends of sports and humanitarian relief. “When Sister Beltran and the children fled from Liberia, they had the clothes on their backs and were in desperate need,” John recalled.
“Muhammad Ali marshaled a shipment of food, clothes, shelter materials, and even school supplies from the generous people of the U.S.A.,” John said.
“However, he was not able to find the needed medicines to care for the children’s wounds and health needs. He made this need known to a number of his friends including a businessman from Montreal, Yank Barry.”
Needs list for orphans matched our kits
Barry contacted HPIC and asked if the organization could help with the medicines. “We looked at the needs list and it was a good match for our Humanitarian Medical Kits,” John said.
John went to the Montreal airport to meet Barry with the two kits. When they went to check in the medical relief at the Air France cargo desk, they told the airline about the project with the boxing legend. Air France decided to waive all the charges and fly Muhammad Ali’s entire humanitarian shipment to the Ivory Coast free of charge.
Then the kits, containing enough medicines and supplies to treat about 450 people, flew on to the Ivory Coast via Paris and were personally carried by Muhammad Ali to Sister Beltran. On August 20, 1997, he arrived in Ivory Coast and was greeted by fans shouting “Ali! Ali!” He delivered his gifts of food, supplies and medicine to Sister Beltran at the Centre Bon Berger Catholic Mission, 200 miles west of the capital Abidjan.
“Muhammad Ali was so grateful for the provision of medicine that his plan had been to fly back through Montreal and meet the staff of HPIC to thank us in person.
Gesture of gratitude from Muhammad Ali
“However, his Parkinson’s flared up on the way home and he had to go straight back to the United States. A week later, I received a personally autographed boxing glove from him as a gesture of gratitude,” John said. “We have cherished that ever since.”
John and his wife Lottie had felt called to donate the funding to sponsor the kits so when he retired, he took the glove as a souvenir. “When our son, John Jr., returned from a year of service in Afghanistan, we decided to give him the glove in recognition for his commitment to helping the people of Afghanistan. A staff sergeant with the OPP responsible for the training of Tactical Rescue Units, John Jr. had been in the country on special assignment from the Ontario Provincial Police to train the Afghan National Police.”
“Muhammad Ali was a great boxer,” said John, “but what makes him truly great is how he cared for people he didn’t even know.”