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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We pair up in groups of two to find several kids who we bond with to follow through the entire process. From screening to surgery, we will be a friendly, familiar face by their side. I meet a little girl named Angie. She and her mother have traveled here eight hours by bus in hopes of getting treatment. Angie has a cleft lip and palate, which means she will need a double surgery. She has a twin sister back home. The thought that at the end of these five days her sister will be able to look at her face and for the first time see a mirror looking back at her is enough to moisten my eyeballs. I feel like I already have a connection with Angie, and I need to join her on her journey.
Torrey shows some of the most selfless, wholehearted, loving energy I have ever seen someone share with a child. Every time I look around, Torrey and Matt have a group of kids playing and blowing bubbles with the biggest of smiles on all of their faces. It is hard to decipher who is having more fun: the kids or Torrey and Matt. Twelve hours of sharing positive energy with the kids makes us want to share our experience with as many people as possible. Back at the hotel, our social media updates explode with one of the most rewarding days of our lives. We instantly want everyone to know what an amazing cause this is and how many lives are being changed. After one day, the uncertainty of our purpose on this trip is a mere thought of the past. The fact that we are here on a surf trip is now more foreign of a thought than our previous wonder of our exact purpose for being here.
We have a very precise schedule laid out—with only four surf days on our agenda. On this trip the surfing is secondary—a very foreign concept to us considering we're used to traveling based around when and where the surf is going to be best. When we get the chance, we scour the coast with our guide Tamile, who leads us to a variety of reef and cobblestone peaks. We're presented with decent conditions, but it's not exactly what we'd look for on a normal surf trip.
Regardless, these mediocre waves have us psyching because this is the first “surf trip” that isn't about us or even the surf, for that matter. In the water, our goal is simple: perform well enough to nail magazine-worthy images that will allow us to create a story out of this trip—because getting this story published might actually help gain awareness and save lives. Never has surfing had more meaning.
As we head to the hospital for surgery day, we are all a bit weary, but we have one common goal: bring smiles to these precious little faces, and help make them comfortable on a day that will forever change their lives. The anxiety level in the hospital is palpable. Mothers are handing their infants to a doctor for the first time and watching as they disappear behind heavy blue doors. Robyn walks up and tells us it’s time—time to go into the operating room with the kids we have been following through the whole process. Dressed in green scrubs, each of us sits down individually to interview the mothers of the kids we are about to take to surgery. Tears of happiness overwhelm each one as the realization that their child is finally getting the treatment they have always needed.
Individually, we all have life-changing moments as we escort our crying children to the surgery bed. Torrey and Matt go first and return from the OR with a new outlook on life. "That was more rewarding than any wave I will ever catch," Matt tells me as I prepare to head inside and witness the process for myself.
I walk in and find a sedated Angie lying on the operating table. Up to this point I wasn’t sure if I'd be able to handle watching her surgery. But intrigue and disbelief take over, and I can't help but watch this skilled surgeon change her life. It's overwhelming—and easily the most amazing thing I've ever witnessed. When the sedation fades, and Angie's able to reopen her eyes, she looks up at her relieved mother and for the first time ever. She smiles.
For more information about Operation Smile, please visit operationsmile.org. A small donation will help save a child's life.—Alek Parker
Click HERE To Donate To Operation Smile