A 'corner of paradise' amid tragedy

Elvezia Raffaelli calls southeastern Idaho a "little corner of paradise." Had it not been for the open hearts and homes of some Latter-day Saints here, she might well feel otherwise.

The friendship between the Italian woman and Alvin and Shirley Bird; their grandson, Chris Avery; and others here began with a tragic auto accident in August 1995. It continues this year in La Spezia, Italy, some 50 miles southeast of Genoa.On Aug. 15, 1995, Mrs. Raffaelli was traveling by rented car with her husband, Piero, and then-12-year-old son, Simone, near St. Anthony, Idaho, some 40 miles north of Idaho Falls. The Italian family, who is not LDS, was on a monthlong holiday, touring the United States. After seeing some of this area's sites, they were involved in a head-on collision. Mr. Raffaeli was killed; Mrs. Raffaelli spent 10 days in a coma. Simone suffered a broken leg.

The family was flown by life-flight to the hospital in Idaho Falls, where the injured boy was the only one conscious - and he spoke no English. A receptionist to one of the physicians knew that Chris, who was in her ward, had returned three days previously from the Italy Milan Mission. La Spezia, the Raffaellis' hometown, lies within the Milan mission boundaries.

"I went right to the hospital," Chris recalled, speaking of the phone call he received that day requesting his help. "I was there all day with Simone. He was in shock."

Chris not only got family names and phone numbers from Simone, but he also talked about soccer to take the injured boy's mind off the trauma. "I felt at the time that it was an extension of my mission. I was so fresh home. At first it was like I was serving them, but now it's like they are family."

They have become, indeed, "like family." After several days of recovery, Simone flew home with relatives who had come from Italy. Chris's grandparents, Brother and Sister Bird, opened their home to other relatives who came to be with Mrs. Raffaelli. The severely injured woman, after being released from the hospital, also stayed with the Birds while receiving follow-up treatments. Chris's parents, John and Betty Avery, also opened their home to relatives, and Brother Avery, an attorney, provided legal help to Mrs. Raffaelli. Other local members visited her frequently, at times bringing guitars and banjos to entertain her.

Through this love and care, not only did members here help the recovering woman through her medical care, but they also offered comfort as she coped with her husband's death. During Church News interviews in which Chris and a relative translated, Mrs. Raffaelli expressed gratitude for the help she has received. "This has been a tragedy that has changed my life, but the help and affection I received from the Bird family will have a place in my heart forever, and also the other people of Idaho Falls whom the Bird family introduced me to. I still haven't come to terms with the loss of my husband, even though I have gained strength in other problems in my life through this experience."

She also spoke in particular of Chris, who "helped me a lot. He gave me inspired words. He comforted me, even with words of his religion."

The help - and friendship - continue. Since the accident, Mrs. Raffaelli has returned to the United States twice, in November of 1995 and 1996, for more treatments. Her doctors say she is recovering nicely from severe head and internal injuries, and broken bones. During both visits, she has stayed with the Birds. During the recent trip, Simone accompanied her, and Chris took the boy to Salt Lake City to visit Temple Square and watch a Utah Jazz basketball game.

Brother and Sister Bird are planning a trip themselves - a three-week stay in La Spezia in May. Speaking of the friendship, Brother Bird said: "We never had a clue it would grow to this point. They're like our children."

Brother Bird explained how close his wife became with Mrs. Raffaelli and others from Italy. "They became like our daughters."

He added that the Italian woman and her family asked over and over, " Why are you doing this for us?' We've told them,We've been given much in return.' "

When Chris is not around to translate for the Birds, they communicate with Mrs. Raffaelli using hand signals. Periodically, they use a translation computer. But the language barrier hasn't seemed to affect the relationship. One of the most tender moments during an interview came when Mrs. Raffaelli spoke of her husband, who was considering running for mayor of La Spezia before his death. Speaking of the love in their marriage, she began to cry.

Brother Bird typed out some words on the translation computer and placed it in front of her. His message: "Time helps us heal."

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