By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje, Staff Writer
Sometimes the biggest heroes come in small packages.
Mateo Alcorta is just 9 years old, but he’s got a heart as wide as Texas. He’s found ways to help out during the coronavirus pandemic that both spans the globe and strikes deep right here at home.
Recently, he and his parents, Elizabeth Salinas and Matthew Alcorta, brought 80 teddy bears, each one clutching their own little face mask sewn by Mateo, to the University Health System Transplant Center, to be given to pediatric patients who receive transplant treatment at University Hospital.
“I know that these kids will be scared, and I just wanted to make them something to help them feel better,” said Mateo, a serious little boy in glasses and a knit cap.
Elizabeth said her son seems to have a natural instinct for helping others.
“He’s just very giving,” she said. “He thought this would bring a smile to these kids’ faces.”
Before the teddy bear project, there was Mateo’s face mask-making endeavor, which had its genesis in, of all things, the music of BTS, the wildly popular, seven-member, K-pop boy band out of South Korea.
Every Sunday, the Express-News will profile someone who is making life a little better for others during the coronavirus pandemic. Send suggestions to Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje at email@example.com or leave a message at 210-250-3226.
The entire family is crazy about BTS and its music, said Elizabeth — they even have a BTS sticker on their car. But Mateo is the biggest BTS fan of them all, his bedroom festooned with posters. He was over-the-moon excited about the band’s tour coming Dallas.
“I don’t really understand all the words of their songs, but I really like the melodies,” said Mateo, standing in the driveway of his modest brick home in a Northwest Side subdivision.
But some time in February, he started reading online that BTS was canceling concerts, over rising fear of an incredibly contagious coronavirus out of China. He also read online about a worsening shortage of face masks to protect people from infection.
Instead of pouting, he sprang into action.
“He decided he was going to make cloth face masks to help anybody in need,” said his mom.
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Elizabeth sews as a hobby, making blankets and pillows for family and friends. She started giving her son pieces of cast-off fabric from her projects, and showed him how to create a face mask, using instructions they found on YouTube and Pinterest. She taught Mateo how to operate her step-peddle sewing machine.
Mateo, who taught himself to crochet, made crocheted straps to hold the masks in place behind the ears.
Once he had a bunch of masks to give away, Elizabeth posted their availability on Nextdoor, an online community group, as well as her Facebook page and a Facebook group used by BTS fans all across the world.
Word of his free masks spread like, well, the ear worms from a BTS song.
Soon Mateo was mailing his free masks to folks in the Philippines, Singapore and Canada. He mailed bulk supplies of masks to a nursing home in England. He sent masks to an H-E-B in McAllen. He sent masks to the Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable’s Office. A representative from the office later visited Mateo at home, presenting him with a certificate of thanks.
Elizabeth and her husband, who works for a local tech company, have paid all the mailing costs for the mask shipments, she said.
Since he began in late February, Mateo has made and given away more than 1,000 masks, working on them almost every day, after his school work is done. He said he sometimes works “until my hands ache.”
“We finally had to set a timer, telling him to stop working on the masks after an hour and go play or watch TV,” said Matthew.
Mateo had been helping local charities before the virus hit, making and selling candied applies and giving the money to various nonprofits. For a Valentine’s Day project, he made special baskets containing candied apples, chocolate-covered strawberries and other snacks, with a plan to buy teddy bears and deliver them to children living at local shelters. He raised more than $200.
But then the virus shut down the shelters.
As the coronavirus spread, one day a cousin tagged Mateo on Facebook, with a post about University Hospital looking for donations of masks for staff members. Then he learned that the hospital provides transplant surgery for children. What better home for his teddy bear project? And why not equip each one with its own child-sized mask?
Mateo tapped his 3-year-old brother, Simon, as a model to size the masks, which can be worn by children as well as teddy bears.
Children who undergo transplant procedures are at greater risk of infection from the coronavirus because they must use drugs that suppress their immune systems and prevent rejection of the new organ. It’s also harder for transplant recipients to recover from such infections.
Once San Antonio stores re-opened, Matthew bought 80 teddy bears, which Elizabeth then carefully washed and sprayed with disinfectant.
At the recent teddy bear drop-off at University Hospital, doctors and nurses gathered around Mateo and his family, letting him know how much they appreciated his act of generosity.
“This is so awesome, what you’ve done,” said Renee Polka, development officer for the University Health System Foundation.
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Dr. Daniel Ranch, a pediatric nephrologist and director of the kidney transplant program for children at the center, was there to meet Mateo.
Ranch said the pediatric transplant center is the only one of its kind in the region and performs kidney transplants for about 20 children a year from San Antonio and elsewhere in the state. The center also does pediatric liver transplants.
Because of COVID-19, the hospital had to temporarily suspend transplants for children on its waiting lists. “We don’t want to immune-suppress someone in the face of a virus we don’t know much about and have no treatment for,” Ranch said.
Only in recent weeks has the hospital cautiously resumed the surgeries, doing so on a case-by-case basis.
“Fortunately, few of our kidney transplant patients have been infected with the coronavirus, and those that have have experienced a mild course (of the disease) compared to other centers,” he said.
Ranch waited his turn to personally thank the hospital’s latest pint-sized benefactor.
“This will be such a morale-booster for these kids, who are chronically ill,” he said. “Any little glimmer of hope helps them.”
Elizabeth watched as the hospital staff encircled Mateo — maintaining 6 feet of distance, of course — and applauded his efforts.
“He makes me and his father so proud,” she said. “His heart is so big. I find myself crying with joy.”
The following week, Mateo would be featured on a local TV show that honors kids who are “champions for change,” a program sponsored by Methodist Healthcare. He had been nominated for the honor by the principal and counselor at his school, Elrod Elementary.
Elizabeth said she believes her son has inherited the benevolent spirit of her grandfather, Simon Salinas, who died at age 65, while she was still in high school.
Mateo was not able to meet his great-grandfather, who worked as an X-ray technician at what is now Christus Santa Rosa Hospital. But he’s heard many stories about him, such as the time Salinas rescued a little boy who had been hit by a car. He performed CPR on the child until the ambulance arrived.
“Everything Mateo does, I see my grandfather in him,” Elizabeth said. “He somehow has his spirit. Whenever it’s his birthday, he always wants to get a present for his little brother and older sister.”
Mateo, a comic book fan, says he wants to become either a teacher or a scientist. In the near future, he plans to start a sidewalk venture called Larry’s Lemonade — he just likes the way it sounds. He says he’s going to continue making masks and helping anyway he can, even after the virus is long gone.
“It just feels good, helping other people,” he said.
Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje is a general assignment reporter covering breaking news, cultural trends and interesting people and goings-on around San Antonio and Bexar County, as well as all across South Texas. To read more from Melissa , become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @mstoeltje