There are two sides to the Shriners. There is a fun side - funny hats with tassels, clowns making balloon animals and driving tiny cars in parades. Then there is the serious side to the organization - helping children with complicated orthopedic or plastic surgery needs.
Few Las Vegans realize that the 800-member Zelzah Shrine Temple, 2222 W. Mesquite Ave., sponsors free community outreach clinics for children. Doctors from the Shriners Hospital for Children-Los Angeles make the trip four times a year.
"People in this town don't know that we are here and that we are happy to help them," said Al Oppegard, 70, potentate (president) of Zelzah and a Sunrise/Whitney-area resident.
In addition to the outreach clinics, more than 100 children were seen last year by doctors via teleconferencing sessions at the Zelzah facility.
One of the doctors who participated in the video conferencing evaluations, Los Angeles Shriners hospital pediatric orthopedist Dr. Anna Cuomo, is scheduled to be at the next outreach clinic.
"We focus on rehabilitation," Cuomo said. "We take children with very complicated problems that require multidisciplinary care and (help) return them back to become productive members of society."
Shriner and Paradise Valley resident Linden Smith, 82, is in charge of the high-tech video conferencing equipment. Licensed RN Harriet Alvarado facilitates the interaction among doctors, children and their parents. Doctors evaluate, make recommendations and the children, depending on their condition, are either scheduled for the next outreach clinic or transported by the Shriners to the hospital in Los Angeles for treatment.
"A burn patient is a good example of the work the Shriners do," said Oppegard. "Insurance may take him through the treatment for his burns, but he doesn't have a finger or nose anymore -- that's when the Shriners pick him up and give him back anything he needs."
Joe Alvarado, 75, Zelzah chairman of the outreach clinics, speaks before civic groups to spread the word about the clinics. "In a group of 10, someone will raise their hands if they have been touched or helped by the Shriners," he said.
"We now have over 755 little souls on our medical care rolls."
Alvarado shared the story of baby Veronica. Born with a cleft palate and a gaping hole in the side of her face, at 18 months old she wasn't able to eat, Alvarado said. Within one month of coming to the Shriners, Veronica had undergone reconstructive surgery at the Shriners hospital in Los Angeles and was able to smile for the first time.
"We don't treat sick people," said Oppegard. "We fix people. We help them have a life."
Transporting children and their parents to Los Angeles comes at a high cost. Alvarado estimates that the Shriners spend approximately $20,000 per year on gasoline alone. A new van was recently purchased to replace two aging vehicles that had each racked up more than 300,000 miles. One of the vans was donated 10 years ago by entertainer Lance Burton.
"We have one member that has made over 200 10- to 14-hour round trips (to the Shriners hospital in Los Angeles)," said Alvarado. "We are looking for a generous benefactor to donate a good late-model or low-mileage vehicle to help with our transportation program."
The next children's outreach clinic is scheduled for Sept. 29 at HealthCare Partners of Nevada, 1397 Galleria Drive, Henderson. The medical group has donated the use of its facility for the past three years.
"Our staff loves volunteering for the clinics and the opportunity to support the Shriners in their mission to provide quality medical care for local children," said HealthCare Partners practice manager Adriana Solis.
Alvarado considers the volunteer work he does with the Shriners a privilege that has led him to a fuller life.
"We are your neighbors - we are a part of you - we volunteer to work for you," he said.
To learn more about the upcoming Children's Outreach Clinic, call Mary Morris at 382-5554.
Donations can be sent to the Zelzah Shrine Transportation Fund, 2222 W. Mesquite Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89106.
To learn more about the Zelzah Shriners, visit zelzahshrine.com.