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Oh, yeah, the Shriners. Those are the guys in the clown costumes. They drive those funny looking little cars in the parades. They're funny and fun.

And they do so much more. Ask Hunter Nielsen. Hunter is 10 years old and he wants to get a lot older. As reported in The Times-Standard's Humboldt Beacon in January, Hunter suffers from pectus excavatum also known as funnel chest. Hunter's sternum began to grow deeper into his body, pushing his heart backward into his spinal column.

Hunter's mother, Tiffany Nielsen, said in the Beacon article that “Shriners Children's Hospital and the doctors, staff and donors have changed his future by allowing him to participate in a trial research study.”

The Shriners Children's Hospital will hold a screening clinic on Saturday, May 3, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at St. Joseph Hospital Pain Center, 2705 Harris St., Eureka. The Shriners said the screening clinic offers care for children with medical problems ranging from skeletal deformation to burn issues. For more information, contact Jim Widdoes, 707-599-8841.

According to the Shriners:

”Driven by excellence in treatment, teaching and research, Shriners Hospitals for Children - Northern California provides specialized pediatric care to children with orthopedic conditions, spinal cord injuries, burns and scars from any cause. Admission is based on two criteria -- age and diagnosis.”

The medical staff at Shriners Hospitals for Children - Northern California has special expertise in treating children with a number of conditions that include:

* Burns: emergent burn care, acute injuries, reconstruction/rehabilitation, burn prevention; Neuromuscular programs: spinal bifida, cerebral palsy, brachial plexus birth palsy, neurourology;

* Pediatric orthopedics: clubfoot and other foot disorders, lower limb malformations, hip dislocation and other hip issues;

* Upper limbs: hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder deformities, brachial plexus birth palsy, other neuromuscular disorders;

* Complex spine program: scoliosis, hyphosis, spondylolysis;

* Upper and lower limb deficiencies: prosthetics and orthotics, limb lengthening and reconstruction;

* Sports: sports related injuries, sports programs for children with disabilities;

* Spinal cord injuries: acute care and rehabilitation;

* Specialized plastic surgery: scars from any cause, hairy nevus, ear abnormalities, birthmarks, facial feature abnormalities.

At a recent meeting with local Shriners, Jim Miller, president of the Redwood Shrine Club, said the Shriners' costumes and mini-cars is part of their “having fun and taking care of children.” He also said that “once a Shrine kid, always a Shrine kid.” That meant, he said, that when a child or youngster up to the age of 18 who comes to the Shriners for help, they will continue to get that help well beyond the age of 18.

One of the Shriners' sayings that appear in their newsletters is: “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” And it is a national effort as the Shriners have 22 hospitals throughout North America and one in Mexico.

Last year, 121,298 children were treated at Shriner hospitals nationally, with 167 from Humboldt County.

”Our main focus is providing transportation to and from the hospital in Sacramento for these 167 children,” said Kenneth Christiansen, Shriner first vice president. He added that the “cost of this service is born entirely by our Aahmes Shrine temple in Livermore.”

According to Shriners, they spend in excess of $1 million a day to keep their hospitals operating nationwide. That money comes from endowments and donations.

”Our endowments built up since our beginning in 1922 have come mainly from Shriners or family members,” Christiansen said. “Also, we sponsor a number of fundraisers, Justin Timberlake PGA tournament in Las Vegas, for example.”

The Shriners Hospitals for Children mission statement is: “to provide the highest quality care to children with neuromusculoskeletal conditions, burn injuries and other special health care needs within a compassionate, family-centered and collaborative care environment; provide for the education of physicians and other health care professionals; conduct research to discover new knowledge that improves the quality of care and quality of life of children and their families.”

Their newsletters document cases of caring, such as Ruth Sedillos, who was born unable to manipulate her left-handed fingers. When she was 3 years old, her pediatrician recommended Northern California Shriners Hospital. Now, at age 15, Ruth plays the harp for hospital guests.

The Shriners also offer a variety of programs that help patients develop a wide range of psychosocial skills, such as camps that offer therapeutic horseback riding to skiing adventures.

People registering with the Shriners are given a form to fill out that asks for basic information: child's name, gender, age, date of birth, family phone number, best time to be reached, parent or guardian name. Parents and guardians are also given a sheet that states: “Be aware that any information you provide on the following form is for use only by the Shrine Hospitals for Children. It in no way will affect any assistance you may be receiving at this or any time.”

Shriners membership is national, but memberships are declining.

”Like many fraternal organizations today our membership has declined over the past 20 odd years, more than two-thirds for the Redwood Shrine Club,” Christiansen said. “Our current roster lists 96 members along with 38 Shrine widows. Growing older takes its toll, but not our spirit and commitment to helping children in need. We're always seeking new members from among our Masonic brothers.”

Dave Rosso resides in Eureka and is the former city editor of the Times-Standard.