QUITO, Ecuador — While the presidents of Ecuador and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met Tuesday for the first time, young burn victims and other hospitalized children around the country continued their educations through an emerging government program supported by the church.

President Lenín Moreno, a 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his advocacy for people with disabilities, welcomed President Russell M. Nelson, a world-renowned retired heart surgeon, at Carondelet Palace for his first meeting with a leader of the church since his election in 2017.

A carjacker’s bullet paralyzed Moreno in 1998. After he recovered from intense pain and years of depression, he became a champion of people with disabilities. Today, he is the world’s highest-ranking leader to use a wheelchair.

Ecuador President Lenín Moreno listens while being interviewed during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday Sept. 26, 2018, at U.N. headquarters. | Bebeto Matthews, AP

President Nelson told Moreno that the church has provided 17,775 wheelchairs to Ecuadorians. The effort has cost $1.4 million, according to Latter-day Saint Charities.

“President Moreno was very kind and conducted a very warm conversation,” said Elder Enrique R. Falabella, who attended the meeting as president of the church’s South America Northwest Area. “He thanked the church for the humanitarian help it provides in Ecuador, especially when responding to emergencies and for the wheelchairs program, and he sincerely thanked President Nelson for the help in education, health and other areas.” 

As the two leaders discussed humanitarian work in the government palace in Quito, a bright-faced teacher in equally bright hospital scrubs at a hospital 20 minutes away played educational games with two little boys who sat on a hospital bed, gauze wrapped around their heads and torsos. Each suffered serious burns a month ago when scalded by hot water.

The education program launched in 2016 at five pilot hospitals. It now operates in 74 hospitals treating children with cancer, kidney failure, serious burns or other chronic or terminal diseases or traumatic injuries that require extended stays.

Children roll their attached machines to class in small, converted hospital rooms. Doctors and nurses slip easily into classrooms to take vital signs. Classroom size varies from 10 to one, as teachers take materials to children too sick or wounded to attend class.

Last year, three patients were honored in graduation ceremonies after their deaths. More than 68,000 hospitalized children have benefited and other Latin American countries are interested in copying it.

“We don’t get children with colds,” said Geovana Gallegos, chief of communications at Carlos Andrade Marín Hospital in Quito. “We get children with cancer and other terminal or difficult diseases or injuries. Working here as been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The education program is one of the most fulfilling, she added.

“We’re trying to take their education to the children,” said Alejandra Andrade, a regional analyst for the Ministry of Education.

She knows what it’s like. Andrade received a cancer diagnosis at 14 and missed four months of school. She worked hard when she returned but missed too much. She repeated the grade.

Teachers in the program interact closely with patients’ teachers back home, finding out what assignments should be done and reporting grades. While they try to normalize the education, program advocates say it is more interactive, especially for younger children.

That’s where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes in.

The church has provided materials to 40 of the 74 hospitals in the program — things like globes, flash cards, math games, puppets, mobile shelving and cabinets, puzzles, child-sized desks and tables, maps, stacking toys and toys that display the digestive system and nervous system, said Sister Sandra Granauer, 57, a native Ecuadorian serving a church humanitarian mission with her husband, Carlos, 63.

The Ministry of Education has provided furniture to the other 34 hospital schools and requested that the church donate similar materials to what it has done elsewhere.

Mathias Laureano, 8, has been in the hospital for three months. A bump on his shoulder during horseplay at school developed an infection that turned septic.

He is like many other boys. Recess is his favorite subject. He wants his teacher to give less homework. But he has a ready smile, his handwriting is pristine and his scores are high. He is scheduled for surgery on Wednesday. If all goes well, he can return home Friday to Quinindé-Esmeraldas, a city five hours from Quito. He won’t be behind his fellow students, but he still may need to make an adjustment.

“It’s easier to study here and better to study here than at school,” he said.

Andrade said another program objective is to help children forget they are sick for a while.

Justin Loor, 4, and Jhon Jairo Ramos, 3, had never met. On Tuesday afternoon, they were inseparable as they continued to recover from their month-old burns. Justin was playfully hitting a pot with hot water that his cousin prepared for a shower when he hit it too hard and it splashed across his face, back, shoulder and thigh.

Jhon Jairo tried to drink from a hot pot of water on the stove and spilled it over his shoulder, chest, stomach, arms and hands. Doctors used skin from his head for grafts on his shoulder.

“I was devastated,” said Justin’s mother, Martha Pilataxi, 27, of Quito, who wasn’t home when the accident happened. “I felt awful. The worst thing was to see him burned and not be able to do anything. I felt despair.”

Justin should be enjoying vacation from preschool. Instead, he worries in the hospital that he will have the scar on his leg for the rest of his life.

“There are days when he’s really angry,” said his teacher, Vanessa Garcia. “We try to help them laugh and be part of the class.”

Pilataxi said it works.

“It’s really difficult to be here,” she said, “but having this type of education and friends here is a relief. I’m grateful the boys have a chance to forget about their worries and the outside world.”

Pilataxi gained a friend herself — Jhon Jairo’s mother, Jasmin Silvana Mendoza, 19.

“It’s great because we have the chance to share our experiences and our pain and worries,” Pilataxi said. “It’s really healthy to share these heavy burdens together.”

Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno, center, welcomes President Russell M. Nelson, left, and Elder Enrique R. Falabella, right, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his office at Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador, on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. | Ecuador presidential office

The program began shortly before Moreno took office, but it has continued to gain strength since he did.

Moreno has said laughter therapy helped him recover from his pain and depression. He created a foundation to promote humor about personal experiences as a way of life and is the author of “World’s Best Jokes,” “Laugh, Don’t Be Sick” and “Being Happy is Easy and Fun.”

“Angels can fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously,” he once said, according to Public Radio International.

Moreno told President Nelson he intends to continue to defend religious freedom and human rights and was impressed to learn the church had a quarter-million members in Ecuador, Elder Falabella said.

President Nelson is in the midst of a nine-day tour of South America. He met with Colombia’s President Iván Duque in Bogotá on Monday, and has spoken to more than 43,000 people at church devotionals in Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador. He flew to Argentina after the meeting for another devotional on Wednesday night.