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A life for the children, near and far away

Dr. Brian Orr's days are a blur of children needing medical advice and children needing homework advice.

A normal day for the Beverly pediatrician might include an appearance on a local radio show, a 9-to-5 shift seeing patients at his Gloucester practice, a quick dash to pick his daughter up at ballet, family dinner at home, and then leading a parenting workshop into the evening.

For a few weeks each year, Orr and several family members travel to Latin America to provide medical care to needy children.

"Being of service is a natural part of living," Orr said, throwing back his baseball-capped head in delight whenever he talked about the children to whom he has dedicated his career.

In his North Shore community, the soft-spoken 48-year-old pediatrician's commitment to family has made him something of a local celebrity.

Last year, Orr founded the Cape Ann Family Council, a community group that employs family surveys, media releases, and walkathons to "discuss family issues out in the open."

Orr said he has always been "interested in the struggle parents face."

"I don't feel like I have all the answers," he said, " but I understand the struggle."

And he is always eager to share what he has learned as a parent of three. A lot has changed since his own childhood, when parenting consisted of his mother "threatening kids with a shoe."

His popular evening workshops draw upon personal experiences to tackle everything from toddler temper tantrums to teenage self-image.

He offers advice during the day, too. Alicia Gossom, a nurse in his practice, said she goes to him when she has a question about her 2-year-old daughter. "If I have any parenting concern, he'll have me photocopy articles to bring home."

And Wendy Ercolani, whose two boys are Orr's patients, said that "through my difficult time in my divorce, he would tell me what books to read to help answer my children's questions."

Orr's own parents were schoolteachers. As one of seven children raised on Long Island, he "virtually grew up in a Boys Club," baby-sitting his younger siblings and playing baseball.

Orr met his wife, Bernadette, while they were both at Boston College, and it was her interest in international service and subsequent graduate study on Latin America that led him overseas, first volunteering on a medical brigade in the Dominican Republic.

After serving in the Navy to pay for medical school, the couple's interest in Latin America was rekindled by a vacation to Ecuador, and they began to bring their children on volunteer and language immersion trips to Mexico and Guatemala.

Orr, his 13-year-old daughter, Ailene, and her friend spent two weeks at the Rancho Santa Fe orphanage in Honduras for two weeks last March, an orphanage the family has more or less adopted.

In January, the orphanage will come to them, when one of Orr's Honduran patients, Jocelyn Caceras, will stay with the family for a time.

To lead a normal life, the 15-year-old must have surgery to correct a genito-urinary malformation -- surgery that cannot be performed in Honduras. Over the past two years, Orr has obtained the commitment of a surgical team at Shriners Hospital for Children to perform the operation, and arranged for Caceras' visa. The procedure is scheduled for Jan. 13 but they are still trying to raise enough money to buy plane tickets for her and a companion.

Orr hopes that involving his children in this kind of work -- both at home and abroad -- will teach them that "part of life is being of service and giving to people." Bernadette Orr said the family's annual trips allow "the kids to be conscious of the bigger world, and be active participants."

Ailene said her father is certainly consistent.

"The day before school started, we were just talking about eighth grade and stuff," Ailene said. "He was like, 'I have every confidence in you; I know you're going to do fine.' The next day, I heard him on the radio talking about positive reinforcement and empowering children."

"That sounded familiar," she said.

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