Wearing their Smile Hero capes, Final Mile VIP runners pose for a group photo under the Operation Smile globe at its headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Many of the VIP runners have had treatment for cleft conditions at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD) in nearby Norfolk. Paige Rooney is fourth from the left.

Whether he’s running across the soccer field or running the show during his Operation Smile club’s presentation, fifth-grader Brandon Prater is always on the move.  

“I don’t let my surgeries stop me from doing anything I like to do,” said Brandon, who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. The 10-year-old has had 36 surgeries to treat these conditions. 

After going the extra mile for Operation Smile’s patients by fundraising to cover their surgeries, Brandon ran the Operation Smile Shamrock Final Mile with thousands of his peers at the Virginia Beach, Virginia, oceanfront in March to help raise awareness of cleft conditions. 

“I wanted to join my Operation Smile club and run in thFinal Mile because I wanted to help other kids like me to get their surgery so they can have a great smile, too,” said Brandon, who attends John B. Dey Elementary School in Virginia Beach.  

Brandon Prater poses for a photo with his mother, Nicole, at Operation Smile Global Headquarters.

The Final Mile is the culmination of an ongoing running and walking program for elementary aged children designed to teach the importance of healthy living, lifelong fitness and the importance of giving back to their global community. 

As each surgery can cost as little as $240, Operation Smile Student Programs kicked off its Smile Hero initiative this year to recognize Final Mile runners who help make a smile possible. Smile Heroes like Brandon received a neon-green cape to wear as they poured down the mile-long course.  

Joining Brandon in the Smile Hero ranks were the top Final Mile fundraisers of Alanton Elementary School, third-grader India Starr and brothers Luke and Brody Avenson. 

 “We knew we were helping people,” India said of the lemonade stand she started with a friend to raise money for Operation Smile. “I feel very good about helping someone my age be able to get a surgery.” 

For the Avensonsthird-grader Luke said helping Operation Smile quickly became a family affair. When they came home and told their parents about the organization and its mission, word spread to their grandparents, and soon nine people had chipped in toward their donation. 

“It makes me feel happy helping others,” said Luke, whose brother is in kindergarten. 

India Starr and Luke Avenson talked with Operation Smile after a Final Mile pep rally at Alanton Elementary School. Many Alanton students not only participate in the big race but take part in the school's running club.

For Linkhorn Park Elementary School, the Final Mile became an opportunity to activate their students for a good cause (or to help others) as well as get active themselves. 

“We thought this would be a fun and exciting way to get the kids involved in a healthy, meaningful event that could become a lifetime passion to run and support organizations such as Operation Smile,” Paula Ott, the school’s instructional technology specialist, said in direct message on Twitter. “In addition, we believe it is an organization that is important to support because it began right here in our backyard and is now making a huge difference in the lives of so many children worldwide.” 

Physical Education Assistant Jim Perkins went the extra mile for the Linkhorn Park community: Once 100 students signed up for the Final Mile, students got to shave his head in front of an assembly. 

“This meant a lot for the entire student body,” Ott said. “… They were all smiling, telling him Thank you and expressing gratitude for being a good sport’ and doing this. 

Final Mile VIP runner Hailey Dore assumed a super-hero stance just before the Final Mile on March 16, 2019.

For fifth-grader Hailey Dore, the Final Mile isn’t just an opportunity to run with her peers across the Virginia Beach community — it’s also a special gathering with friends who were also born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Every year, on the day before the Final Mile, Operation Smile Student Programs brings together Hailey, her fellow VIP runners and their families for lunch. 

“Operation Smile has made me realize how fortunate to be able to have born here and have the medical care to take care of me,” Hailey said. “I am so happy other people are participating in this, and not just people that have a cleft lip or palate.” 

Hailey’s mother, Kristie Dore, said she absolutely agrees. Just before the race, as the street was swelling with runners, Kristie Dore’s eyes were misty as she shared how moving and meaningful it is for her to see thousands of people come out and support their cause.

“I had five surgeries, and my mom said that she was very scared when I was born and that everything will be okay,” Hailey said. “And I am very happy that I get to participate in this kind of activity because I know what it feels like to have a cleft lip and cleft palate, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this.”

Visit operationsmile.org/finalmile to learn more about the Smile Hero initiative and make a Final Mile donation.