Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making Kids Smile All Over Russia

Jennifer Kaplan arrived in Moscow at the onset of 1995 with $800, some stray business cards and the phone numbers of a handful of doctors.

"I had no place to live, no place to work, no employees and no board of directors ... I didn't know how soon I could raise, or would need, the next $100," said Kaplan, now 25, of New Jersey. "It was hard for me at first. I made a lot of mistakes."

But charged with the task of establishing a new branch of the international charity Operation Smile, Kaplan's impact was quickly felt.

Kaplan had heard about the job while she was working in the U.S. state of Virginia, where Operation Smile is based, for an agency that resettled Russian Jews who had emigrated. The new post gave her a chance to return to Russia, where she had studied at the Moscow Pedalogical Institute in 1991.

In her first 1 1/2 years in Russia, Kaplan organized two missions to Yaroslavl where 176 children had surgery for facial deformities such as cleft palates -- a congenital defect in which the mouth and nose do not grow together properly, leaving a hole that can cause severe speech and eating disorders if left untreated.

"Often times the children are abandoned, and they go on to get worse and worse and worse. People are scared of them," said Kaplan.

It was for Operation Smile's work in Russia that U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering nominated the group for the inaugural Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize -- a $1-million award which the organization received in April 1996.

Yet while the prize was a windfall, the Moscow foundation this year must rely solely on fund-raising to survive. A two-year grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development ended Sept. 30. Operation Smile's major event of the year, its second annual Charity Masked Ball, will be held Nov. 2 at the Baltschug Kempinski Hotel. Masks will be provided at the door to some 125 guests who have paid the $250 price for entry to the black tie affair.

The ball will begin with a champagne reception at 7 p.m., followed by dinner and entertainment. It will be highlighted by an art auction of works donated by well-known Russian artists including Leonid Semeiko and Sergei Sherstyuk. The auction will be conducted by Peter Batkin, senior director of Sotheby's in London.

"We will hopefully get enough donations from the Moscow business community to keep things going," said Kaplan. "We do as much as we can to get the Russian business community helping Russian children."

The financial solvency of the Moscow foundation is more important than ever, perhaps, because it is slated to incorporate the Operation Smile mission in St. Petersburg by the end of this year.

The organization's influence was felt last weekend at the first conference on children's health and oral surgery, dentistry and orthodontics in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Operation Smile co-sponsored the event with the Ministry of Health.

Kaplan said the next spate of surgeries are scheduled to occur from June 8 to 24, 1997, in Taganrog -- a town adjacent to the Azov Sea in the Rostov-Na-Donu region of Southern Russia.

"Our point is to come into the local community and ... operate upon more children than we could by sending them to the U.S.," said Kaplan, who added that a two-week mission costs approximately $250,000.

The amount does not include the value of the time donated by the volunteer physicians. Although Operation Smile focuses on facial deformities, Kaplan said physicians will attend to any child who walks through the door, regardless of their problem, and offer the best advice possible.

"When I first got here I thought that we could make a huge change," Kaplan said. "But now I realize we do what we can, and affect the lives tremendously of the children we touch."

Tickets may be purchased for the masked ball through Operation Smile, 243-9319 or 232-2695. Requests may also be faxed to the office of Laura McNeil at 931-9178.