Part of Something Bigger“I was seven years old when gunmen came and ransacked our home looking for guns. Finding no guns they then began shooting in our living room,” recalled Dr. Alonso Collar, IV. “My little sister was five.”
Decades earlier, his father, Alonso Collar Perez was orphaned and raised by his Aunt and Uncle with little financial means. His dream was to be a doctor. As he worked his way through school, he obtained a housekeeping job in the largest medical center in Cuba. He eventually took his education as far as the University of Michigan in the United States. He became Dr. Alonso Collar Perez, a neurosurgeon, and opened a neurological practice in Cuba. He became the Medical Director of Cuba’s largest hospital, the same Cuban medical center where he had once worked cleaning toilets. He married Elia Vila and they had two children, a boy and a girl. They named their daughter Alina and their son Alonso.
It was the late 1950’s when Fidel Castro helped to overthrow the Batista Government. The Communist Party
came into power in Cuba. During this period Cuban citizens were terrorized. If accused of a crime against Castro’s party there were no trials by jury. For a period, Cubans woke up every morning to see televised executions, by firing squads, of those who had been deemed enemies of the state. Dr. Alonso Collar Perez who often treated policemen for trauma was titled as the official police surgeon for the Batista regime. This was a crime against the Communist Party. By 1960, the Communist party was confiscating private land and Dr. Alonso Collar Perez lost everything for which he had worked.
His son Alonso, IV, at age seven, was petrified as the military gunmen shot up their home with the family still inside. Thankfully the family members were not injured, but the memory is vivid in his mind.
Dr. Collar Perez knew he had to get his family out of Cuba and to safety. Elia traveled with the children and one suitcase to Miami, Florida. Dr. Collar Perez was unable to travel with them because he was under watch by the Communist Party. Elia waited for her husband to escape and meet them in the U.S. One day, Dr. Alonso Collar Perez went fishing and was never seen again in Cuba. He had successfully fled to the U.S. and was reunited with his wife and children. There was one place in particular he wanted to start his life over; where he had earned his doctorate, Michigan.
The family moved to Lansing, Michigan so that Dr. Collar Perez could establish a practice with his fellow resident Dr. Robert Basset. He first had to complete an internship at Sparrow Hospital so that he could begin practicing medicine in the United States. Sadly, just prior to finishing his internship Dr. Alonso Collar Perez suffered a fatal heart attack. Elia and the children, then six and eight, were alone. “The Lansing community reached out to us,” recalls Alonso Collar, IV. During that time there was no official Refugee Resettlement program in the Greater Lansing Area. The Collar’s depended on their own resilience, the aid of their young niece Sonia Menendez (Ladwig) and the welcoming community in which they lived, to rebuild their lives.
Young Alonso and his sister attended school at St. Thomas Aquinas in East Lansing. Elia Collar studied English at MSU and then obtained a job working with St. Vincent Catholic Charities (then known as Catholic Social Services). Elia was instrumental in forwarding a campaign that helped Cuban families who sent their children to safety in the U.S. Knowing about the kindness of the Lansing community and of the St. Vincent Catholic Charities Children’s Home, Cuban mothers and fathers sent their children to live in the STVCC Children’s Home until they could obtain a way out of Cuba. Many were reunited with their children. Sadly, some were not, but they had secured safety for their young ones.
Elia remarried and became Elia Collar Stanley the wife of Dr. Arthur L. Stanley. Beginning in the mid 1960’s she worked tirelessly to help the Cuban refugees find employment and housing so they could start a new life in the U.S. Until the parents could be reunited with their children, Elia would go and spend time with the children living at the STVCC Children’s Home. “She would always tell them, ‘You are more than you, you are part of something bigger,’” recalls Alonso Collar, IV.
Alonso wanted to be a doctor like his father. By age 14 he was working in a surgical laboratory under the watchful eye of his step-father Dr. Arthur Stanley, where new open heart surgical procedures were being developed. He continued to work at Ingham Medical Hospital through his undergraduate and medical school education at Michigan State University. Now Dr. Alonso Collar, he went on to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota for surgery training, and the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida for adult and pediatric cardiac surgery. He earned his Doctorate and was offered an opportunity to stay and work in a nationally recognized and respected clinic. “Do I stay or return home [to Lansing, MI]?” Dr. Alonso Collar, IV asked himself. “I wanted to give back to a community that gave me so much.” He came home to Lansing. He and the love of his life, Stefeni Collar, went on to have five children. Today he is a heart, lung and vascular surgeon for Ingham Regional Medical Center and has saved the lives of countless individuals.
Giving back is a strong theme in the Collar family. “We” versus “Me” was a statement that Alonso and Stefeni often repeated to their children. “Just being at the right place at the right time and doing one little thing is important. On a frequent basis we are presented with opportunities to help someone, we just have to take them.” said Dr. Collar.
Loss is not foreign to the Collar family. Alina, Dr. Alonso Collar’s younger sister, died in a car accident when she was only seventeen. Alonso’s mother Elia Collar passed away in 2005. The Collar family suffered a deep loss in 2004 when their son, Alonso Collar, V ‘Bonz’, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away after a heroic three year battle at the young age of twenty one. “Hope is a very strong word that we don’t understand very well.
Not until my son was diagnosed did we understand that without hope we didn’t get from today to tomorrow,” Dr. Collar shared. “As a physician I see people with terminal illness. To give them hope is the art, not the science, of medicine. Through my faith, I can remind them to think about what they are here to do. What do you need to do in the next twenty four hours to help you get to where you need to be? Until you need hope from a practical perspective you can’t begin to understand its immense power.”
“Three words became an essential part of our [family] journey; Faith, what we need in order to know our purpose; Hope, what we need to take the next step; Love, which without we are nothing. How do you get through the journey without those three things?”
“When we have an organization like St. Vincent Catholic Charities we provide a platform where people can survive and learn to thrive. As human beings, without vision, purpose, support and hope we can’t survive. We need a stable environment where we can generate hope. People want to achieve. We need to be the hand to pull people up.”
“Legal immigration has deep roots in the fiber of our nation. I know many of the people who came here from Cuba as children and they are instrumental in the fiber of our community. Many of those children are successful professionals, all be cause at one point in time someone reached out to them…. hotdog, toilet and hamburger were the only three words in English I spoke when I first came to the United States,” said Dr. Collar.
Elia lived the words that she taught by playing her part in something much bigger. Within a decade of Elia Collar Stanley’s work to help Cuban families find safety, STVCC went on to establish the official Refugee Resettlement program for the Diocese of Lansing and has gone on to help thousands of children, families and adults to find safety. People from every continent, where their lives were in danger, found the love of Christ in Lansing, Michigan. This program also helped victims of Hurricane Katrina, who were evacuated from New Orleans, find safety and open arms in the Greater Lansing Area. To date, more than fifteen thousands lives have been saved through this program.
“Family is huge and extends beyond the genetic definition…We have a fantastic society and through volunteerism we have an extended family,” Dr. Alonso Collar, IV.
If you would like to learn more about STVCC services for Refugee Resettlement CLICK HERE.
Under header in box, verbiage should be, “Just being at the right place at the right time and doing one little thing is important,” Dr. Alonso Collar, IV.
Text under photo on story page and on module should be of the little boy and read, “ Above Photo: Some of the women of Resurrection’s Volunteer Group, at St. Vincent Catholic Charities, having just helped to clean donated baby swings and carriers for those in need.”