Getting the whole world to smile

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 14, 2008

FRANKLIN—She pedaled three hours by bicycle, not knowing whether she would be one of the fortunate ones chosen to receive a special surgery.

With a cleft palate and a jaw malformation, 7-year-old Janelle was too ashamed of herself to look at anyone.

“Her mother told me that was why she wouldn’t look at me,” said Eliza Peak of Franklin, who spent 12 days in Makati in the Philippines on an Operation Smile mission as a student volunteer.

“I tried to get her to play and take a picture with me.”

By the end of the day, Janelle was laughing and playing, and was also one of the 109 selected for corrective surgery out of the 156 screened on this particular mission.

“I got to follow her throughout her surgery,” said Peak, the daughter of Dr. Daniel and Lucy Peak.

A 17-year-old junior at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy who has been involved with the children’s medical charity organization since grade school, Eliza went on her mission during Operation Smile’s 25th anniversary— the culmination being the World Journey of Smiles, which involved 40 simultaneous missions in 25 countries.

Peak participated in mission training last summer in Limerick, Ireland, and serves on the Executive Leadership Council for Operation Smile with 15 other members from all over the world.

“(During mission training), they try to prepare you,” Peak said. “I’ve seen a million pictures of children with cleft lip, but you always have your doubts about how you will react.

“Oddly enough, it didn’t seem to phase me at all.”

Student volunteers on the missions comfort and play with the children. In addition to this responsibility, they teach dental hygiene, proper nutrition and burn care not only to the families involved in surgery, but others in schools and orphanages. “We went to Virlanie (Foundation) orphanage and visited two different age groups,” she said.

“But, one of the most emotional points for me was going to the children’s cancer hospital near Makati. The children stayed at the hospital and their parents were there with them.

“Two of the girls were well enough to play. One was named Annie,” she said. “I played with her a long time.

“She had leukemia.

“One of the children had a brain tumor and couldn’t respond. His mother just held the IV and cried.

“It was heart-breaking.”

Peak said if it hadn’t have been for strong supporters on the home front, she would not have been able to share as much with the children when she arrived in the Philippines. Although the young patients get a special Operation Smile bag after surgery, Peak and others had collected enough items to distribute to the orphanage and children’s cancer center as well.

“Wal-Mart donated stickers, Dr. Norman Thornton donated toothbrushes, the Knights of Columbus donated money, and Southampton Memorial Hospital donated money and mirrors,” she said. “Mirrors are a huge deal there.”

Peak also donated a portion of her collection of 200 Beanie Babies, as she couldn’t fit them all in her duffel bag. Sunglasses were also distributed among the children.

“One little girl opened the bag and said, ‘I always wanted a pair of sunglasses,’” Peak recalled.

Volunteer hours were long, but rewarding for those participating.

“I’ve definitely become more appreciative for what I have,” she said. “I wish everyone could have my experience.

“The most rewarding part was at one point in post-op. I carried one of the children to the parents. They cried and hugged on me. They were so hopeful and appreciative.

“When all is said and done, you’re handing that child back, and (the child) is looking in the mirror and is going to have a new life.”

Peak plans to attend a college with a good nursing program, and will continue her work with Operation Smile.

“It’s one of my biggest passions,” she said.