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Drawn by children in need, mom helps build schools in Ethiopia

May 6, 2014 at 12:49 PM ET

Video: Mother of four Ilyssa Maisano runs a nonprofit organization called Growing Hearts of Africa that has helped build four schools for underprivileged kids in Africa and funded hundreds of live-saving surgeries. She tells Kathie Lee and Hoda that teaching special education motivated her to make a difference.

What began as one couple’s dream to start their family by adopting a child from Ethiopia has become a charitable mission to provide schooling and medical treatment for children in Africa.

Ilyssa Maisano and her husband knew they wanted a large family, a goal they hoped would come true through a blend of biological and adopted children. When they had trouble conceiving, they began the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia, but the wait was too long.

“We were eager to be parents, so we decided to go domestic instead,” Maisano told Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford on TODAY Tuesday.

They adopted a girl, and six weeks later, adopted a boy. A short time later, Maisano became pregnant with a girl, and she gave birth to another girl a year ago. Although the couple did not adopt from Ethiopia, Maisano still felt a connection to the east African nation.

“I just always had this tie to Ethiopia,” she said. “Being a former special ed teacher, I really wanted to educate children in need.”

She discovered a need for elementary schools and for life-saving surgeries for children in under-served areas of Ethiopia. Instead of baby gifts for their first two children, she and her husband asked for donations, and raised enough money to build their first school in Africa.

They continued the effort, forming their charity, the Growing Hearts of Africa Foundation. In five years, Maisano has become a mom of four children ages 5 and younger, and her nonprofit organization has raised more than $300,000, built four schools and funded several hundred surgeries.

As she helps children thousands of miles away in Africa, she is setting a strong example at home.

“I love that our kids grow up like this, getting all the experiences in the world,” Maisano said. “And knowing that I do this, they really understand how to give back to others.”

As photos of her blended family were shown on TODAY, Kotb described the images of her kids together as magical.

“They belong together,” Maisano said. “We were all meant to be.”

Her large family, she said, is just like any other.

“They don’t see color,” she said. “We’re all one big happy family. It’s amazing.” Maisano said her husband was on board with adoption early on.

“He knew going into this that I really wanted to adopt children,” she said. “He was all for it.”

Her sisters and their spouses are supportive as well.

“When I had this idea for the charity, they jumped right on board, Maisano said. “They were there to support me just like they are with everything else.”

The fourth hour hosts thanked Maisano for all of the work she does to help others, and felt she was due for some pampering. The beauty app, GLAMSQUAD, will head to her house for some primping before she and her husband will be treated to a steak dinner in New York and the Broadway show, “After Midnight.”

Maisano was grateful, but had one important question: “Are you guys babysitting?”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

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