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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saying 'Cheese' With Pride

Life hasn't been easy for 12-year-old Roman Mesheryakov, who was born blind and spent the first part of his life in an orphanage. But in addition to those challenges, Roman has another one: His mouth contained what American dentist John Murray describes as "a dental disaster - severely scrambled teeth that were far too big for his mouth and hampered his ability to bite, chew and even breathe."

However, all is not lost. Thanks to Operation Smile Russia and partner US DentalCare, Roman's orthodontic problems are being repaired.

Roman's mother, Galina Ivanova, calls Operation Smile a godsend. "The Moscow clinics told me fixing Roman's mouth would cost $1,500, which is money, of course, we don't have," she says. Her husband, a fireman in Moscow, makes only 2,000 rubles ($85) per month.

When she saw television ads for Operation Smile's "World Journey of Hope" in March of this year, she saw a chance to help her son. "He feels my mouth and knows his is different and unattractive," she says. "This procedure will change his life."

Worldwide, the organization has changed the lives of more than 50,000 children since 1982. Since coming to Russia in 1992, Operation Smile has helped more than 900 children with simple facial surgeries that repair cleft palates, hemangiomas, port wine stains and other facial deformities.

Although an operation for a condition such as a cleft palate usually takes under an hour to perform, many Russian children with facial deformities are simply abandoned. "It's a legacy of Soviet times to strive to be the smartest or most beautiful," says Vsevolod Rybchonok, a Russian plastic surgeon with Operation Smile. "Perfection is still a cultural thing, and doctors actually encourage parents to give up children who aren't perfect."

Also, many Russian children who are treated are left equally disfigured, primarily due to the crude plastic surgery techniques performed in Russia. "They just close the hole with no thought to the patient's self-esteem," Rybchonok says. "We try to show these doctors how it should be done."

The operations are costly, despite the fact that all of the medical staff donate their expertise and the medical supplies are provided by sponsors like Johnson & Johnson. To help meet the roughly $1,500 cost of each operation, Operation Smile and Sotheby's auction house this month auctioned off 40 pieces of art donated by local Russian artists. "We raised enough money to cover 300 more operations," says Christopher Rhondeau, director of the Moscow office of Operation Smile.

Next spring the organization will travel to Tomsk in western Siberia, where they intend to operate on at least 150 children unable to travel to Moscow. Operation Smile is also in the process of opening a clinic in Moscow to perform operations year around, thus fulfilling its mission to change the lives of children one smile at a time.