Alek Parker, Matt Meola, and Torrey Meister embark on a life-changing trip to Peru as Operation Smile ambassadors
It’s 11:00 p.m. as we drive through an unfamiliar labyrinth of traffic-filled city streets. There are children juggling pins while weaving in and out of traffic, and they are begging for money when cars stand still under the red glow of the hanging traffic lights. We notice a young barefoot girl no older than ten spark a lighter and take a drag from something rolled in colorful newspaper. This is life and reality for these young children: on the streets late at night, begging for money for their family’s survival. She is barefoot and we are a sandal company on a charity mission to help children, but what can we do for these kids in this moment? The light turns green and the beautiful little girl exhales a cloud of toxic smoke. It drifts away in the mirror like a breath of life, floating up into the gloomy night sky.
Where are we? No, seriously. I’m reading Sanük founder Jeff Kelley’s iPhone and forwarding directions to him, which has just taken us the wrong way down a one-way street. The traffic policia blow their whistles and wave us to drive on. I’m the navigator in the passenger seat trying to direct JK on how to lead our group of nine, split into two large vans, through the heart of the most densely populated city in Peru. After passing a brightly lit Atlantic City Casino, we exit the city sector that those less fortunate children inhabited, and moments later we arrive.
Ten pisco sours—a regional cocktail consisting of pisco (a clear liquor), lime juice, sugar, and egg whites—dress the bar of the hotel lobby. Our liaison for Operation Smile, Robyn Mircoff, has us gathered to explain exactly what we will be doing as ambassadors for Operation Smile. The drinks are quickly set aside as Robyn breaks the group chatter with the schedule for the morning and outlines our responsibilities and purpose for being invited here. “Let me start with some facts about Operation Smile” Robyn says. “Every three minutes, a child somewhere in the world is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate—often unable to eat, speak, socialize, or smile. Parents often can’t afford the necessary surgeries. Over the past 30 years, we have performed over 200,000 surgeries in 60 different countries around the world. That’s 200,000 children’s lives changed forever.”
JK tells us his story of getting involved with the charity: “I saw an Operation Smile ad in a magazine and realized that this is what we’re all about at Sanük—sharing a smile and our positivity with whoever we encounter. I knew that we had to get involved and support this cause.”
Sharing. This got me thinking. Sharing is common phrase in social media. You “share” photos, video, and articles with different online communities around the globe. But never has this terminology made more sense then now. Sharing is why we are here—sharing our time, positivity, and a friendly face. Interacting with the children, playing, blowing bubbles, and bonding.
These are our instructions for the first day of screening at the hospital. “We expect to screen somewhere around 200 kids tomorrow. Your wake up call is 6:00 a.m., so get some rest,” Robyn says. We’ll share in the experience and then share it with the world. Social media is our canvas to tell the stories and experiences of these children. To suddenly consider Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook modern-day tools to save lives is a crazy concept to wrap my head around. The once fun, lighthearted, social networking sites are also incredible ways to gain awareness for important social causes. These thoughts drift through my mind as the city lights fade into a gloomy morning sky. Our purpose for being here is now clearer, but what we are about to experience is still very uncertain.
Matt Meola, Torrey Meister, and I are the professional surfers Sanük has brought on this not-so-common surf trip. Brian Bielmann, Sanük team videographers Joey and Scotty, social media guru Adam, PR specialist Rachel, and Sanük Owner Jeff Kelley round out our nine-person crew. We load the bus to the hospital for the start of our first 12-hour day. We arrive to see pop-up tents in the parking lot, which are fashioned into a makeshift medical facility. Mouse ears, colorful plastic ties, and an arsenal of bubbles don every volunteer in sight.
It’s a long and intense process for everyone involved. The anxiety of the fact that treatment isn’t guaranteed is painted on the faces of every parent. Physicals, tests, and medical history are just a few of the factors that could cause a child not to get cleared for treatment. Soon the uncertainty of our purpose here vanishes with the overwhelming need to play, smile, and share fun moments with both child and parent. We are swept away with the joy of playing with these amazing little humans as they stare back at our funny-looking mouse ears and goofy neckties. And bubbles—that stuff is worth its weight in gold! There is no better way to bond with a child where the language barrier restricts verbal conversation. We have translators, but they are not needed; our simple interactions bring out the most genuine smiles.
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