So comes in the mail one of the most appealing requests for funds I’ve ever gotten: A brief letter clipped to a clear proposal for a specific project called THE SMILE TRAIN. (Brief, clear and specific: already a plus.)

"Since you’re a big fan of leverage, and ‘bang for your buck,’" ran the letter, "I thought you might appreciate this. We deliver $6 of services for every dollar donated. We have almost a 100% efficacy rate — every child we operate on ends up ‘cured.’ No recidivism, no complications . . . we have the ‘cure,’ we just need the money to distribute it."

The brochure opens with before-and-after shots of a two-year-old born with a cleft lip and palate. The before photo is hard to look at, and tells you unequivocally this kid faces an impossible obstacle. No way can he be happy and productive or accepted into society looking so terribly disfigured. The after photo shows the same kid, product of what can be as little as 45 minutes in surgery, with a normal, healthy smile.

Operation Smile has performed 40,000 such life-changing operations, but THE SMILE TRAIN is a way to reduce the cost by 85%.

The idea is to raise $30 million to outfit a train with an operating car and a training car and drive it through China for five years. China has millions of kids with this deformity. At every two-week stop, Operation Smile’s volunteers will work side by side with local surgeons and nurses, operating on hundreds of children and teaching the locals how to do it after they leave. When The Smile Train goes on to the next stop, it will leave behind $150,000 worth of operating room equipment and computers. In exchange, the local hospital commits to operate on one indigent child a day, for free. Operation Smile will maintain contact with the hospital, supplying additional support as needed to be sure it can fulfill its commitment.

And the hospital may of course use the equipment for whatever other procedures it sees fit.

After five years, according to the calculations in the brochure, local Chinese surgeons and nurses will be performing 12 times as many surgeries as THE SMILE TRAIN.

If it works in China, the program will be replicated elsewhere.

Rescuing 100,000 kids at a cost of $30 million works out to $300 each. Not too bad. Three subsidiary benefits: (1) the training and equipment remain in place for China to more or less solve this problem, going forward, by itself — so it really rescues far more than 100,000 kids at a cost far lower than $300 each; (2) the training and equipment left behind will doubtless help in other ways, too; (3) what an excellent way to build goodwill between the U.S. and China.

So how to get $30 million? Computer Associates has already given $10 million and some anonymous donor an additional $1 million. Tom Brokaw is in the brochure saying, "The work is real. The results are enduring. The gratification is limitless. I would encourage anyone who cares about children to support this idea and help make it happen." Colin Powell calls it "a unique idea that makes you feel good about being an American." George Bush thinks it’s terrific and so does China’s President Jiang Zemin. But the name and face that really struck me was Bill Gates, who says, "it’s an ideal combination of the latest technology and good old-fashioned values like charity, compassion and altruism."

Maybe Bill was the anonymous million, but here’s my thought. Rather than spend any money trying to raise little bits of money from you and me, why doesn’t Bill just have Microsoft match Computer Associates and then get Disney or Kodak (smile!) to do the rest? Presto, done. No fund-raising costs, no directors of development, no galas, no direct mail solicitations . . . and of course the potential payoff to companies like Microsoft and Disney in a nation of 1.3 billion potential customers would be very large.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t send your own $50 or $300 or $750. By all means — call 888-OP-SMILE or write Operation Smile, 220 Boush St., Norfolk, VA 23510. But c’mon, Bill. If you really believe in it, why not "just do it." (Hmm — maybe there’s room at this sponsorship table for Nike.) In yesterday’s comment, I suggested the value of cutting out the cost and effort of fund raising by setting up our own "mini-charities." Well, to a guy with $37 billion, $10 million is mini.

Whoever funds it, it’s a wonderful project.

Technical note: The plug-in RAM-bus of my Java initializer winsocked out after the first try, so I was only able to do this once. But when I did visit the first time, and then clicked Russia in the left margin, and then Before and After at top left, I saw a disfigured child’s face morph into a beautiful smile. Try it, and then tell me you’re not ready to hop on THE SMILE TRAIN.


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