Five South Africans have run, walked, cycled and kayaked 15 500km over the past 12 months to raise over R1 million for Operation Smile South Africa.
This has resulted in the non-profit being able to help 110 children with cleft conditions, mainly from rural communities in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.
“We delivered two surgical programmes in each province to enable patients to receive safe cleft surgery quicker and referred patients requiring more complex treatment to specialist hospitals,” says Sarah Scarth, the executive director of Operation Smile South Africa.
“We also deployed 60 volunteers – cleft surgeons, anaesthetists, paediatricians and nurses – to serve on Operation Smile surgical programmes across Africa, benefiting a further 1,000 patients with clefts.”
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Earlier this week, Dan Meyer, Richard Kohler, Bob Bolus, David Grier and Andrew Stuart were honoured for this achievement at a cocktail event in Cape Town.
The athletes all tackled solo challenges to raise funds and shared their stories, what they learnt and how they overcame obstacles on their expeditions.
Dan Meyer’s epic cycle
Dan Meyer’s bicycle was playing up, and steadily getting worse. If he’d been at home in Cape Town, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but he was alone in a deserted area of the US with 50km and a mountain range between him and the nearest repair shop.
“The elevation killed my legs, my bike, and my will to live. Finally at 4.15pm I made it to the ‘bike shop’ which looked like it hadn’t been open in years. Cobwebs on the door,” Meyer posted on Facebook.
“So I tried to fix the bike myself and made it so much worse. Now it doesn’t ride at all. I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere, California, with no bike. Shit.”
The good news is that in July the 40-year-old businessman solved the problem and completed his 3,000km ride from border to border down the west coast of the US.
In July 2022 he cycled solo 3 500km across Europe from Copenhagen to Rome in his first Smile Cycle. Overcoming obstacles is what endurance athletes do.
Kayaking to Brazil
Another of the athletes who supported Operation Smile is Richard Kohler, who in February became the first solo kayaker to paddle 7,000km from Cape Town to Salvador, Brazil.
“We raised over half a million rand, ensuring that more children will receive corrective cleft surgery,” says Kohler, who recently joined an Operation Smile mission in Mpumalanga.
“I stood next to the surgeons while they were operating,” he says. “The passion I saw there was what kept me going while I was paddling. And I loved the instant gratification of what Operation Smile does – it changes children’s lives almost immediately.”
Bob Bolus stepping up
Bob Bolus, who marked his 65th birthday by walking 500km from Mossel Bay to Pringle Bay last October and November, also found deeper meaning in his exploit.
“We are all destined to create our own legacy,” he said. “There are children born every day with a cleft lip and palate. I have chosen to change these children’s lives to enable them to live in a happy and dignified way.
“I have chosen to enable children to smile. I smile a lot, and people smile back. Smiling people are happy people.”
The legend David Grier
Meyer and Kohler are quick to mention David Grier as the man who inspired them not only to tackle difficult challenges but to raise money for Operation Smile along the way.
After their latest adventure – a 1,500km run along the coastline of Portugal and Madeira in June and July – Grier and his running partner Andrew Stuart round out the quintet of athletes Operation Smile will honour this week.
Grier, 63, says it’s the memories from surgical missions that have sustained him on his runs, which have taken him about 30,000km through China, Madagascar, India, Cuba, Thailand and North Korea.
“When I’m out there and I’m struggling to take the next step, I just think of what that next step means, how it’s going to change a life. It’s a big driver for me,” he says.
“I’ve had the privilege of going on a surgical mission, meeting a child before surgery, seeing it come out of theatre, meeting the parents, then seeing that child given a new lease on life. I’ve also seen the effects on families who have been ostracised and pulled apart because of how their child looks.
“That’s why Operation Smile has been so important in my life, and such a worthwhile and worthy cause to support.”
To find out more about Operation Smile or how you can help the organisation, visit www.operationsmile.org.za.