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The Smile Trek: A 5,000 Mile Journey to Raise Funds for Cleft Surgeries

July 2, 2014
Winston Fiore, Photo Credit: Amanda Melati Ramirez

Winston Fiore, Photo Credit: Amanda Melati Ramirez

Today’s guest post comes from Winston Fiore who served in the Marines and AmeriCorps (Marines 2004-2006; AmeriCorps NCCC, 2003) and was originally published as “Why Clefts?” on The Smile Trek website. Winston embarked on a 5,000 mile walk through Southeast Asia in an effort to raise funds for facial-reconstructive surgeries in the developing world. Read more about why Winston focused his journey to fund cleft surgeries.

Smile Trek LogoIn the summer of 2007, my Marines reserve battalion spent three weeks training in Lingure, Senegal. I had never been anywhere outside the U.S. and Europe, and the trip was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The people, the culture, the customs… Come meal time, for example, the Senegalese commandos would circle around one collective dish of food as opposed to eating individually. Whenever we got a break in training, they would invite us over for tea, and we quickly learned the specific sound we were expected to make as we sipped the beverage. One afternoon, as we were all crammed in the back of a flatbed truck, passing through villages with the countryside unfolding before us, I decided I wanted to spend a year exploring the world.

The poverty I saw in Senegal had an enormous impact on me as well. I watched families dressed in rags dig through our trash in search of items they might salvage. I saw women transporting gallons of water on foot from faraway water sources because they didn’t have running water in their village. As someone who grew up in a middleclass American house-hold, witnessing such things was an eye-opener. I realized that in addition to seeing the world, I wanted to participate in it directly and contribute, in some small way, to its improvement. And if I wanted to meet people face-to-face as I had in Senegal, I decided there was only one way to travel: on foot. But how could a wayfaring former Marine be of service?

The Smile Trek website banner:

The Smile Trek website banner:

Soon after returning home, my dad showed me a newspaper article about a surgeon who had given up his lucrative career in the States to devote himself to providing free facial-reconstructive surgeries, most of which are cleft lip/palate repairs, to children in developing countries, the cost of which – $250 a procedure – remains out of reach for most families. Dr.Williams’ personal story was extraordinary and made me think of the children I had seen in Lingure, who, through no fault of their own, had to grow up in such an impoverished environment. If I were going to dedicate myself to a cause, I wanted it to be one that would help improve the lives of such children.

While cleft lips can cause feeding complications for infants and later, flawed speech, it was the overwhelming element of shame that drew me to this cause. A cleft lip is up close and personal. It is the first impression. It, of course, appears on the most expressive part of the body, and unless it gets fixed, a cleft never goes away.

As someone whose favorite pastime is socializing, I could never imagine having to grow up with such a stigma. Making friends can be hard enough for children without a facial deformity, but for those living with a cleft, the chances of leading a normal life are slim to none. No child should grow up feeling ashamed of what he or she looks like, and every child should be afforded the chance to smile. Answering this call to service has proven to be my life’s most rewarding experience.

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