Cari Long: A Journey Full Circle

cari_long_blogCari Long, Cari Long Photography, Cary, NC
September 2012 Operation Smile mission to Paraguay
by Ann K. Monteith

“There are no ordinary moments.” How many times had Cari Long heard Dr. William Magee, founder of Operation Smile, say this? Over the years, as their paths have crossed in different stages of her life, Cari had no way of knowing that someday a remarkable concordance of events would bring Dr. Magee’s words to life in a most personal way, as she prepared to photograph a timid new mother and her newborn baby in a clinic in Paraguay. Follow the seemingly unrelated events that led up to an extraordinary encounter that for this talented PPA photographer now seems meant to be.

“There are no ordinary moments.” For Dr. Magee, who together with his wife, Kathy, founded Operation Smile in 1982, these five words have become the refrain through which he explains how a one-time medical mission to provide cleft lip and cleft palette surgeries to needy children in the Philippines ultimately blossomed into the world’s largest volunteer-based medical charity providing free facial surgeries, working in more than 60 countries.

To Dr. Magee, these words represent the phenomenon by which Operation Smile grew organically . . . as one person at a time would be moved by seeing children’s lives changed so profoundly through the gift of healing: Inspired by the power of these moments, they would pass on this vision to others, who themselves would want to help expand the organization’s reach.

Cari Connects With Operation Smile

Like the thousands of children Operation Smile has helped around the world, Cari was born with a cleft. But unlike so many children in the developing world, she received reconstructive surgery several months after birth as a matter of course. The tiny scar that remains is barely a footnote in Cari’s personal history: “It was never an issue in my growing up, she says.”

Following her graduation from North Carolina State University with a B.S. degree in biology, Cari pursued her M.S. degree in human genetics at the University of South Carolina. She then accepted a position as a genetics counselor at Norfolk Virginia’s Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, where Dr. Magee maintained a Craniofacial Clinic. That is where they first crossed paths. “I got to know Dr. Magee through working with his patients at his clinic for several years,” she explained. By then she had started a family with her husband, Jason, that today includes son Keaton, age 17, and daughters Reece, 15, and Sasha, 10.

Several years later, when Jason’s pharmaceuticals job relocated the family to Northern Virginia, Cari worked in breast cancer genetics until Reece was born. “I didn’t want to have two kids in daycare,” she said “so I decided to stay home with them and take a few photography classes at a local community college.” Cari credits her interest in both biology and photography to her father, a biology teacher and a hobbyist in photography. “I learned a lot about photography from my dad, she said, “as I loved printing in his dark room with him.”

While living in Virginia, Cari reconnected with Dr. Magee, when she and Jason journeyed to Norfolk so that he could perform surgery on two-year-old Reece, who had a benign tumor under her eye that would not stop bleeding. When Jason’s job responsibilities took the family to North Carolina in 2002, the possibility that Cari would once again cross paths with Dr. Magee might have been unlikely, had it not been for her decision to open a photography business. Neither Cari nor Dr. Magee could have guessed that ten years later, both would reach for those five magic words to describe a very special encounter that would take place during an Operation Smile mission to Asunción, Paraguay.

Following Her Passion

The business that Cari started in 2003 quickly outgrew her home studio. As word spread about her appealing portrait studies of newborns and children, she moved to her first studio space and then to another, and finally to her present location in a commercial center in downtown Cary, North Carolina. Located in the heart of the rapidly growing “Research Triangle,” comprised of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, she could not have chosen a better place to locate a fine art studio specializing in maternity, newborns, children and high school seniors.

In 2010 Cari first read about PPA Charities’ Family Portrait Month promotion. Upon learning that Operation Smile was the beneficiary, she turned to her husband and said, “I am meant to do this promotion!” Even though fall is her busiest season, she decided to schedule three fall Saturdays for mini-sessions (see her ad below), for which she would donate all of her $50 session fees to Operation Smile. “I knew that for every five mini-session that I did, I could donate enough to make a surgery possible,” she explained. “My clients were very supportive, as many knew my story, and they were happy to support me in my efforts to support Operation Smile.”

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The mini-sessions resulted in an $800 donation to Operation Smile, and Cari was pleased that she could play a part in helping an organization that meant so much to her. Returning to the hectic pace of running a busy studio during the year-end holidays, Cari was oblivious to how that donation would change her life. Like every PPA member who donated $240 or more to PPA Charities (the amount needed to perform a cleft lip surgery), Cari was eligible for a drawing to win the opportunity to cover a 10-day Operation Smile mission.

When Cari’s name was drawn at PPA’s Imaging USA Convention in January, she was dumbfounded! “I didn’t even know about the drawing,” she said. “When I had worked with Dr. Magee’s patients, I was always a bit envious of the doctors who got to go on missions, but realistically there was no role for a geneticist to play there. And now I had this incredible chance to use my photographic skills to document the work of Operation Smile!” Another one of Dr. Magee’s not-so-ordinary moments at work, it seems.

A Life-Changing Mission Begins

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Day one of any Operation Smile mission is especially hectic, as children undergo screening to determine which ones will be treated. It turned out that the 300 children who had come with their families from all over Paraguay were the largest number of cases screened by Operation Smile that year. Cari describes the setting and what she witnessed on the 11-day mission in Asunción in September, 2012.

“We were in an old non-functioning military hospital on a military base. There was no air conditioning, and the temperature was 97 degrees. I heard some uplifting stories and some tragic ones; it was emotional, overwhelming and completely wonderful at the same time. Yes, it was life-changing.

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img_0314_blog“I spent most of screening day in the Child Life Area, where I got to photograph so many gorgeous kids. The parents had dressed them in their ‘Sunday best.’ Each parent desperately wanted his or her child to stand out . . . to be selected. Bert Behnke (Executive Director of PPA Charities), told me I had free reign with my photography, and I decided to photograph the parents and children as I would do with my clients at home, because what captured my attention right away was how alike they were to my clients in expressing how much they loved their children.

“At first I was nervous about walking up to parents to ask their permission, but it became clear that they wanted their kids to be photographed. They would hold them up and say ‘Photo?’ Dads were so involved. I didn’t see embarrassment: I saw love . . . hugging, kissing, tickling. They were just like me . . . just like the parents are with the children I photograph at home, as they poured out their love to their kids.”

Witnessing Organization at Work

Cari was also impressed with the high degree of organization evident in all aspects of the mission: “I expected most of the surgical volunteers to be Americans, but they were multi-national, with many from Latin America, and I learned that this was typically the case in the various countries. I also found it interesting that I was the only American volunteer that had not been on another mission.”

During the 11 days in Asunción, Operation Smile volunteers performed 103 surgeries. “On surgery days,” Cari said, “I photographed the area where the parents and children waited their turn. There were many teenage volunteers who kept the children entertained, so over all it was a very happy atmosphere, in spite of the normal apprehension any parent would feel. There were three full surgical operating rooms, and I was allowed to photograph from the head of the table. Because they knew I had a medical background, the surgeons were wonderful about answering any of my questions.”

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Not all of Operation Smile’s organizational expertise can be seen on a mission, and Cari learned firsthand how behind-the-scenes work pays off for desperately needy children. She explained: “I photographed a little girl whose cleft had been repaired by Operation Smile. She was back for additional reconstruction, and I learned her story: When she was eight months old, her mother left her In a ditch with an open cleft lip and palette. A woman nearby heard her cry. She snapped the baby’s picture in that ditch to prove that it was not she who had abandoned the child. Then she picked up the baby and gave her to the lady next door, because she had seven kids. Today she is a beautiful, healthy girl because someone in the village knew someone who knew someone who knew about Operation Smile.” Once again those not-so-ordinary moments work combined to save a child.

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