Smile Train's CEO to Run First Half-Marathon, Give Kids a Second Chance at Life
As CEO of Smile Train, a global non-profit that provides free cleft repair surgery to children in more than 85 developing countries, Susannah Schaefer is often asked, “What drives you?”
Her reply: seeing Smile Train’s local programs in action.
This week, Schaefer returned from India, where she celebrated Smile Train’s 500,000th cleft surgery there. She also recently witnessed Smile Train’s 50,000th cleft surgery milestone in the Philippines.
“I cry every time I observe a cleft surgery on a child who we’re helping,” says the 49-year-old resident of Lloyd Harbor, New York. “So this year, I wanted to run my first half-marathon to raise awareness and funds for children who have trouble eating, breathing, and speaking. I’m running so these kids can have a second chance at life.”
Schaefer will complete her first 13.1-miler on March 18 at the United Airlines NYC Half, where she’ll be joined by her husband, Bill, along with a group of more than 25 colleagues and friends who are running together as part of Smile Train’s Team Empower, the organization’s endurance fundraising program.
The funds raised through the United Airlines NYC Half will help Smile Train continue to support children like Pinki Sonkar, who will always have a special place in Schaefer’s heart.
“I have had the privilege of meeting Pinki several times,” she says. “She is spunky and confident—but she wasn’t always this way.”
Pinki was born in India with a cleft lip, and her parents didn’t have the financial resources to pay for the surgery she desparately needed. As Pinki grew up, she struggled to eat and speak properly. She’d watch children in her village head off to school, but because of her untreated cleft, she had to stay behind. Pinki’s earliest years were defined by isolation and sadness.
“And then everything changed,” says Schaefer. “A social worker from one of our local partner hospitals in Varanasi came to Pinki’s village and told her family free cleft surgery was available. Pinki and her father traveled an extremely long way, mostly by foot. After six long years of waiting, Pinki was finally able to receive her forever smile and a second chance at life.”
Today, Pinki attends school right along with the rest of her neighbors and has gone on to do many other amazing things. She was the star of the Oscar-winning short film Smile Pinki. She was also chosen to flip the coin at the men’s singles final at Wimbledon in 2013, where she met tennis greats like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
Smile Train’s not just transforming the lives of individuals like Pinki; it’s is also strengthening the communities it serves. “Our ‘teach a man to fish model’ empowers local medical professionals in the developing world to provide treatment to children with clefts in their own community,” explains Schaefer.
Come race day, the magnitude of the Smile Train’s work will surely be on her mind: “The children whose lives we play a small part in helping to transform are the faces that I will be thinking about,” says Schaefer. “They’ll be helping push me forward toward that finish line!”