When friends and family remember Paul Chester, they glow. And while they all agree that Paul was exceptional, it is the simplest memories that they seem to cherish most.
“Shortly before he was killed, he had a bad injury to his leg. He was around campus on these crutches,” said Stephen Ochs, social studies chair at Georgetown Prep, where Paul was beginning his junior year when he was killed in a car accident in 2003. “The kids did a movie, … I think it was on getting a date for homecoming or something. Some of the scenes were Paul limping along on those crutches. He just elicited this wonderful laughter, joy.”
“He had a personality that was just magnetic. He’d walk in the room — I still smile — you just had to smile,” Ochs said.
That was the effect that Paul had on people, and it’s something that Potomac resident Bill Chester, Paul’s father, is trying to harness in tribute to his son and the work he believes Paul would have done in his life.
“When you lose a child it’s just … out of the natural order of things and it makes you reevaluate your entire future and what it means to you, because you sort of live for your kids. So I’ve been talking a lot with friends and family and with my daughter and just trying to put my focus now on something that would honor Paul’s memory,” Chester said.
The result is the Paul Chester Children’s Hope Foundation, which will provide medical assistance in developing countries through medical missions, with teams of U.S. doctors traveling to host countries to perform scores of surgeries in a short period of time.
Chester, an anesthesiologist based at Shady Grove Hospital, and a team of 22 doctors, nurses and physician’s assistants departed on the Foundation’s inaugural mission, to Quito, Ecuador Feb. 12.
The team, with support of the Ecuadorian first lady, will perform 20-25 surgeries per day, working together with Ecuadorian doctors on reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries for children with cleft lips, cleft palettes, other birth defects and burn scars.
The Foundation is working to become registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and is operating under the auspices of an existing non-profit, the Pan-American Medical Society, of which Chester is the President. Pan-American was a social and research organization that operated in the 1960s and 1970s that has recently reinvented itself as a vehicle for humanitarian medical missions to South and Central America.
The Paul Chester Foundation plans a worldwide focus, and Chester has already begun planning its next mission, which will be to Kenya this summer. Chester has established a relationship with conservationist and author Kuki Gallmann and hopes the Foundation will be able to help stem the tide of the ocular disease known as “river blindness.”
The volunteers behind the Paul Chester Children’s Hope Foundation are putting in nearly full-time hours on top of their own full-time jobs.
“Everyone is completely 100 percent volunteer — every bit of time, effort, money. In fact, when I say these people are going to Ecuador, they’re paying their own way to Ecuador, or they’ve raised funds to cover their expenses,” said Chester. In fact, nearly everyone on the mission is using vacation time to go.
“People think you’re going on vacation but when you come back you’re absolutely exhausted. … You’re feel good, but you feel worn out at the end of it.”
Bill Chester had been participating in medical missions through the Pan-American Medical Society and organizations like Operation Smile for 20 years prior to Paul’s death. Paul spent his final weeks preparing to join him on a mission in late 2003. Following Paul’s death, Chester withdrew from the mission work, contemplating whether it was something he could continue. He did not go on a planned mission in 2004.
It was through encouragement and guidance of Roxy Kuzmak, a friend of 15 years who had watched Paul grow up, that Chester started the foundation in Paul’s name and found new meaning in his medical work — honoring Paul, who had considered a career in medicine himself.
Kuzmak is now administering the new foundation, relying on her background in international development at the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Paul did lead by example. He was a kid that made other people do the right thing. And kept other people from doing the wrong thing. And I think he would have continued to do that had he lived,” Chester said.
“His death has actually led to life for other people. It’s one of those strange things in life that good can come from evil. I think it’s very appropriate that his father is doing that. Because Paul opened people up,” Ochs said.