By Jano Tantongco
Traveling with their parents ever since they were infants, brother and sister T.J. and Isabella Manfuso have not only visited a myriad of countries, but they’ve also started a charity to help needy children beyond Long Island’s borders.
T.J., 11, and Isabella, 10, both of Northport, formed nonprofit Gifted Hearts in September 2015, dedicating it to providing medical care packages and school supplies to children both local and abroad.
But, even several years before they officially created the nonprofit, the brother-sister duo was creating supply baskets that their parents would take on their international travels, said Charlotte Rhee, their mother.
T.J. and Isabella, who goes by the nickname “Bella,” fill their care packages with small stuffed animals and essentials like towels, combs, first-aid supplies and slippers.
T.J. said the aim of Gifted Hearts is “to help people who are less fortunate… and make their lives a little easier.”
Bella added, “We like seeing smiles on their faces. It’s nice to see them happy.”
Two weeks ago, the children, their mother, and their father, Paul Manfuso, returned from a trip to Costa Rica where they delivered care packages for 48 children at the Los Lagos elementary school in the city of Liberia. The family worked with the children to hone their arts and crafts skills by building catapults made out of spoons and clothespins and molding pottery.
While the family was in Costa Rica, they sent 75 pediatric medical packs to Huntington Station-based medical mission group Blanca’s House, which transported them to Ecuador. Another 75 packs went out to the Dominican Republic through another private organization.
“It’s part of our tradition, we’ve always been community-minded. We live in an age where the kids have more and more. I never had half the things my kids have now,” Rhee said. “It’s a way to give back to the community and for being grateful for what they have. We want our kids to see what it’s really like in the real world.”
T.J. and Isabella are currently focused on South America and Central America, Rhee said, but they’re looking to expand.
“We hope to go to Bhutan next,” Bella said. Bhutan is a country in South Asia.
She added, “We heard about their earthquake, and we want to bring supplies.”
Never forgetting their own neighborhood, Gifted Hearts also give back to the Huntington area.
In a unified effort with the Junior Welfare League of Huntington, Gifted Hearts provided 30 baskets filled with coats, boots and gifts for 30 kids in Huntington Station last Christmas.
Last month, Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) visited T.J. and Isabella, along with other young volunteers, at a “packing party” hosted at the Ben and Jerry’s in Huntington village. There, they gathered to put together care packages that would be shipped to Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.
“I was so impressed with the giving hearts, vision and organization of these young people. It’s inspiring to see them taking the lead to provide for the needs of other children throughout the world,” Spencer stated in a release.
On meeting Spencer, T.J. said, “It was very nice to actually meet a politician. I felt appreciated that he came.”
T.J. and Isabella attend the Long Island School for the Gifted in South Huntington.
When not engaged in philanthropy, Bella loves playing with her family’s four dogs, Max, Lady, Charlie and Lucy. She also likes to tear it up on the soccer field.
T.J. is more aquatic, enjoying swimming, sailing and rowing.
Up next, the family intends to help construct a computer lab for children in Guayaquil, Ecuador, over the summer. Their plan is to purchase a shipping container and fill it with used computers from local schools.
To learn more about Gifted Hearts, visit GiftedHearts.org.