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Operation Smile by Clare Morin


With all the euphoria, struggles and blisters of 4 Deserts races, the drama of the racing itself often takes center stage. But there is another side to RacingThePlanet events, a quieter side that is just as incredible a force.


An inspiring charitable spirit runs through these races, both in the fundraising of individuals and the collective effort of the event as a whole. All RacingThePlanet events have a partnering charity, and for the Sahara Race 2011 the beneficiary is Operation Smile, an organization thatprovides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children around the globe.


RacingThePlanet founder Mary Gadams explains that there was always the intention to give when she created the event series.


“I am the product of a Jesuit education and have always been taught that giving back and sharing is something that is expected,” she says. “RacingThePlanet was founded not only to take people to these remote and spectacular locations, but also to give back and do our part to make the world a better place.”


Gadams came across Operation Smile 18 years ago, when she was entering Eco Challenge events and her team decided to raise money for the charity.


“When the story ended up as a Dateline NBC special, we suddenly realized the impact of Mary’s drive and charitable philosophy,” recalls Melissa Dibona, the International Development Specialist for Operation Smile. Dibona says that it’s a partnership that has proved to be enduring and inspiring.


“As we have come to know, the positive determination of endurance athletes is unshakable,” she says. “More importantly, we’ve learned that the finish line is a goal met, an internal win for personal gain sometimes for oneself, sometimes for one’s family, but more often for one’s community.”


Since 2005, RacingThePlanet and affiliated individuals have raised almost US$600,000 for Operation Smile and their work to offer healthcare for children who suffer from cleft lips and other correctable facial deformities. There have been many remarkable stories of how this money has changed lives.


Dibona remembers when three year-old A Yiguli arrived at the charity’s Urumqi screening site. She had a deep facial cleft that prevented her from eating and drinking properly.


“The parents would take turns drinking from a canteen and mashing up food from their own mouths in order to spit what little sustenance they could into the child’s gaping mouth,” she remembers. “There were so determined and loving.”


The Operation Smile doctors were at a loss; they wanted to help but the treatment she required was too extensive and risky to perform on site. “It just so happened that RacingThePlanet volunteers were there that day at the screening,” recalls Dibona. “When Mary and I spoke later that night, she told me to make sure the child was treated, at whatever cost.”


The family had left the hospital earlier that day, but as luck had it, they had remained waiting on the street, leaning against the courtyard wall. They were told the good news, and RacingThePlanet went on to help A Yiguli and her family finance a six-month nutrition program for the child, as well as a series of surgeries to rebuild her facial structure.


There have been many such stories throughout Asia–and in particular, the very remote nature of RacingThePlanet races has helped bring medical care to some of the world’s remotest communities.


“The programs funded by RacingThePlanet have allowed us to treat hundreds of children in China, Egypt, Namibia and Vietnam,” says Dibona. “Establishing a long-term presence for Operation Smile in remote areas where we never would have had the opportunity to be otherwise.”


It’s a reminder for those out conquering the dunes; that their struggle across the sand is directly improving the lives of many children. Suddenly those blisters will look a lot more beautiful.  

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