Every child deserves a smile

Published 9:57pm Thursday, May 23, 2013

After 15 trips to China, Africa, Bangladesh and the Philippines, Dowagiac Rotarian Wilber Breseman heads to Portugal next month to man the Alliance for Smiles booth at the 104th Rotary International convention.
The 8-year-old San Francisco non-profit organization provides free reconstructive surgery for children born with cleft lips or palates.
Alliance for Smiles has created smiles for more than 2,000 children in the five years Breseman, of Marcellus, has been involved.
Breseman, one of more than 700 volunteers, two years ago was named Volunteer of the Year.
Before Alliance for Smiles, Breseman participated in 11 polio immunization missions to India and West Africa.
“I didn’t even know what a cleft lip or palate was at the time I agreed to go along,” paying his own way. “I went to China as assistant quartermaster. We hadn’t been there two hours and the chief sterilizer got sick and had to go home, so they gave me a two-hour crash course in running autoclaves to sterilize more than $100,000 worth of tools. Now I teach people how to be sterilizers for our organization,” which featured him in a 15-minute film in 2008.
Breseman brings a varied background, from farming to chairing the Cass County Board of Commissioners in the early 1980s.
He also curates Marcellus VFW Post 4054’s Military Museum.
Breseman said Alliance for Smiles started with five Rotarians as an offshoot of Rotaplast International, another 501(c)(3) non-profit, humanitarian organization founded in 1992 as a world community service project of the Rotary Club of San Francisco.
Rotaplast’s commitment to changing lives through reconstructive surgery includes 15,000 surgeries throughout the world.
“We use doctors and plastic surgeons from all over the world,” he said Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889.
“I call them magicians because they can take these horribly deformed children and make them look brand-new in an hour and a half. These are kids from extremely poor families who would go through their whole lives being made fun of at school. Now they can live productive lives.”
The worst problem Alliance for Smiles faces is being able to accommodate 100 children when 300 who have traveled for days line up expectantly.
It costs $1,000 per child. Dr. Fred L. Mathews challenged fellow club members to contribute $500 he would match. Pledges hit $370 by the end of the meeting.
Sponsoring an entire mission costs $60,000 to $80,000, depending on destination.
“Some of the children we can’t do because they’re too malnourished,” he said, “or they have been butchered by local doctors.
“We have certain criteria. They have to be a certain age and weight, which eliminates probably a quarter of the people we see right away. We give them medicines and teach their parents how to improve their child so maybe we can do them the following year.”
Breseman visited Bangladesh a couple of months ago during civil war.
“A thousand people were killed or wounded two miles from our hospital,” he said. “The only way we could get to our hospital was riding in ambulances because that was one of the few things they weren’t shooting at. Most people respect what we do and let us do it and get out before they start killing each other again.”
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life,” he said, “but I never expected to do something like this. This organization is unique. If you had a cleft lip or palate in America, you would probably go through a series of 15 to 20 operations over your lifetime. Here, in most cases, these kids have one shot to try to close the lip or palate up.”
Some are so disfigured they cannot swallow, their food coming back out through their nose.
“We pay the way for medical people, doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists,” Breseman said. “Non-medical — there’s five or six of us — pay our own way” at a cost of about $2,500.
Alliance for Smiles ships its own equipment in about 30 cartons.
“Virtually all we need to set up is an empty hospital room,” he said. “Within half a day, strangers become a precision team. It’s amazing that these people can work this way.”
Breseman said he’s traveling to Lisbon June 23-26 because Rotary conventions are where Alliance for Smiles lines up most of its “invitations.”
China lacks Rotary clubs, so there Alliance for Smiles works with Red Cross.
Breseman usually lingers in each locale a week or 10 days for sightseeing on his own, guided by fellow Rotarians.
Missions do not transport interpreters, but rely on local college students to translate.
What causes cleft palate birth defects remains a mystery. He said Oriental babies have one chance in 300, compared to one in 700 for Caucasians and one in 1,000 for blacks.
“In Bangladesh alone, in Dhaka City, they have 5,000 new cases every year, so there’s lots of business out there for us,” he said.

Dowagiac Daily News

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