Paige Rooney receives the Making a Difference Student Award from Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee during the organization's Next conference in 2018.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in February 2017.

When Paige Rooney jogs at the front of Operation Smile’s Final Mile with her fellow VIP runners, it won’t be the first time she’s led the march to help children with cleft lip and cleft palate.

The fourth-grader has been tapped to run at the head of the race – an honorary position – because of her early and enthusiastic advocacy on behalf of Operation Smile, a global nonprofit that provides free surgery and ongoing care to patients with cleft lip and cleft palate.

Her “favorite cause” is also the one closest to her heart: Paige was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate.

Paige was about two weeks old when she had her first surgery, her mother, April Rooney, said. It was performed by Dr. Richard Rosenblum, the medical practice partner of Operation Smile Co-Founder Dr. Bill Magee. That Paige had this surgery at such a young age was, Rooney said, in large part because of Magee and that “he does the surgery so much earlier than across the country.”

Paige had her palate closed when she was seven months old, Rooney said, “and we were lucky that’s all she’s had so far.”

Over the past two years and through a handful of fundraisers – including a lemonade stand and a cupcake stand – the Strawbridge Elementary School student has raised enough money to cover six surgeries, which cost as little as $240, for children in need.

Her goal heading into the Final Mile? Pay for even more surgeries.

“I hope to raise some money for any child to get the operation they need to have their cleft lip fixed,” Paige said she’s going to tell prospective donors, “and why it’s important to have their cleft lip fixed so that they are able to go to school.”

The 10-year old said she likes to “tell people new things so that they can try to help. … I know what other kids (with a cleft condition) are going through.”

“I’m really excited to see what she does,” Operation Smile Student Programs Associate Vice President Jennifer Krzewinski said. “And she’s a go-getter. She takes initiative herself – which you don’t always see at that young of an age – so for her to want to give back and want to help kids with clefts is pretty amazing.”

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.

In its 11th year, Operation Smile’s Final Mile is a program that encourages children ages 5 to 12 to run the 25.2 miles of a traditional 26.2-mile marathon incrementally, saving the remaining mile for the big event. They’re also encouraged to raise awareness and funds for Operation Smile along the way.

Participating students can go the distance in a many ways, Krzewinski said; a few examples include logging their runs in P.E. class, starting their own running club and hitting the pavement with family members.

But accumulating those 25.2 miles isn’t as important as adopting the healthy habits needed to stay on track.

“There is a whole fitness and health advocacy piece to it as well,” Krzewinski said. “Staying healthy, being fit and exercising while taking care of yourself is a big part of it.”

And when Paige tackles the Final Mile, she’s going to do it in a way that’s equal parts supportive and stylish: Her mom got her a green skirt to go with her shirt that’s decked out with little shamrocks and says “I’m a lucky girl.”

Paige said they’re going to put Operation Smile’s logo on the back of the shirt so everyone knows exactly what’s she’s running – and standing – for.

“We have to work hard to help hopefully these other kids get the surgeries and spread the word so that everybody knows the surgery’s available for them,” Rooney said.