Fifteen years ago I joined the Rotary Club of San Francisco. I met many incredible humans doing good work. One of these members, Anita Stangl, and I became good friends. I was inspired by her flashy fashion sense and gregarious personality- this woman never met a stranger. She immediately made me feel part of the group.
A member of our club, Peter Lagarias, thought up this idea to do cleft palate surgery in Chile. Our club got a team of doctors, nurses and Rotarians together and changed the lives of children in Chile inflicted with the disfiguring malady.
I tell the story often of how proud I am of our club- more than 9,000 free surgeries. Surgery proved not to be enough for this group of do-gooders – next they started investing in research to figure out how to stop cleft in the first place.
My friend Anita, now devotes her life to this cause. She runs the organization Alliance for Smiles. (after leading Rotaplast for years)
Such an inspiring way to live a life. Years ago, when in Santiago Cuba, my husband and I befriended a young man of about 19 or 20 years old. The lad tried to pick my husband’s pocket one night while he was out having a scotch and a cigar. John held his hand and shook it. Looked at him and said, “rather than settle for what I have with me, how about becoming friends with me so that you can have access to capital when our countries finally open up to each other. You can get $50 now.. or tons later. ”
We spent the next few days with this kid. It was incredible the long talks we had. Cubans are very well educated in art and history. I can remember telling him about Rotary and what we do. I swear, he asked me about it at least 30 times over the next week. He kept trying to see what our angle was – he had learned that Americans never did anything for charity… just for money.
We talked about the cleft palate surgeries. This seemed to connect with him more than anything else. Cuba has great health care- he understood how lucky we both were to have that. I think if him today as I read this article. It is still years later and he can’t come see Rotary first hand- learn what is good about the humans who live in the behemoth country to his North.
If you have time, read her thoughts below. This makes for a long blog and SO WORTH READING. There is so much wrong in our country.. our world right now… this woman is doing her part to make it right. I am very proud to know her.
Alliance for Smiles lands in Shenyang
Â· 32-member team on two-week mission to China performs cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries for children in need
Â· Partnership with Red Cross makes mission possible
Â· Team brings families hope, one surgery at a time
What would you do â€¦
â€¦ if you knew your child faced a world where he/she would have a difficult time communicating with others because they couldnâ€™t be understood?
â€¦ if feeding your child was a challenge, if you didnâ€™t know if their milk would go into their tummies or come out their nose?
â€¦ if your child refused to study, to go outside, to go to school because they were mocked by their classmates?
â€¦ if the problem with their cleft also created problems with their ears meaning often they heard the world under muffled tones?
â€¦ if the future happiness of your child was at risk because 15 years from now it was going to be very difficult for them to find a partner to marry?
â€¦ if you knew your child faced a world of ridicule because they looked different from their classmates?
â€¦ if you knew it was going to be difficult for your child to find a good job because school was so difficult, because communication lies at the root of human understanding?
Making a difference one child at a time
You can see it in their faces. Parents are parents in any language, any culture. They want, desperately, what is best for their children.
Without change, this isnâ€™t going to happen. Alliance for Smiles is molding that change.
AFS is on its fifth trip to China, its second to Shenyang and changes are happening.
The premise is simple. A team of highly trained, highly experienced medical personnel travel as volunteers to areas in need providing cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries to children who otherwise could not afford the procedure. AFS has one goal and one goal only â€“ helping children â€“ changing lives one child at a time. This goal has a second part, to help establish treatment centers manned by trained local talent who will also take care of the children of families who couldnâ€™t afford the procedures.
Itâ€™s an uphill battle. In Shenyang 164 children were screened in the first two days of clinics, 98 selected for surgery. The doctors cannot take care of them all. There is simply not enough time. Thatâ€™s not easy to explain. Itâ€™s not a matter of adding just one more â€“ the surgical crews work grueling schedules taking them well into the night. Still, the desperation when someone is told no breaks your heart.
A couple of their stories â€¦
Two brothers, Xiang Bin Sun and Xiang Hai Sun arrived Tuesday. One is 9 and one 14. Both need cleft palate surgery and mom is beside herself. They are farmers. She says without Alliance for Smiles it wouldnâ€™t, it couldnâ€™t happen. Itâ€™s their third trip. Each of the other times they were turned away â€“ not enough time, not enough slots. They are a full-days journey from Shenyang. The 9-year-old is in fourth grade and a good student. He does well, he studies hard, said mom.
The 14-year-old is another story. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade. The teachers couldnâ€™t understand him, she said, he wasnâ€™t doing well. Even mom has a hard time understanding when her own son speaks.
Family finances are a huge factor. His father needed his help, so he spends his days helping out on the family farm. Xiang Hai told his mom he wants to work hard, that way his brother can stay in school. His words donâ€™t come quickly. He chooses carefully and speaks slowly. But mainly he smiles at the doc. They high-five, a gesture requiring no interpretation. The meaning is universal.
Plastic surgeon, Dr. Richard Siegel, smiles back.
Shu Hua Zhang wants for the other school children to stop laughing at her son. Bao Yu Chen is 9 and in need of a cleft lip revision. Bao Yu has dreams of his own. He wants to be a basketball player.
Their trip to Shenyang took four days, 17 hours by bus, followed by the train. His surgery is set for Wednesday. He spent Thursday and Friday in the dentist chair, an added bonus provided by Alliance for Smiles for the children and their families.
â€œMost of these children have never seen a dentist, and then we ask them to open up, come at them with a jack hammer, and they still think weâ€™re OK,â€ said mission dentist Dr. Michael Gonda.
Bao Yu just smiled and shook his head as he promised to brush his teeth everyday.
â€œThis little lad was so nervous the first day his ears filled with tears. And look at us now. We started with a handshake, moved to a high five and now weâ€™re bumping knuckles,â€ said Gonda.
Life is hard. Money is difficult to come by. They had to borrow money to make the journey. Theyâ€™re not for sure how they will pay it back. A friend in another province heard about the program, made contact and told them to come. They live by the wood factory in the mountains where her husband finds work.
The mom, Shu Hua Zhang, grows a garden to supplement their food supply. â€œWhen someone gets sick we donâ€™t go to the doctor. There is no money,â€ she said. â€œWe do not have enough money for the operation. Sometimes he does not want to go to school. He has no confidence.â€ She gives her son a look as only a mom can look, turns and says, â€œI love my son very much. I am very happy. We really appreciate Alliance for Smiles.â€
The Chinese government recognizes the problem, but there is not enough money to create a solution. The partnership between Alliance for Smiles, the Red Cross and at other sites, The China Population Welfare Foundation, and the hosting hospital are critical to the success of the mission. Even with volunteer help, even with the working partnerships, it is very expensive for Alliance for Smiles complete each mission. Each trip costs an estimated $80,000. Taking into consideration the hospitals partnership and the volunteer expertise, the value of the services provided is in the excess of $600,000.
Because the children face a lifetime of challenges in a world, until programs can be established in China to take care of all children based on the model present in the United States, how can we say no?