At just 10 years old, Elizabeth Alberti was facing her seventh surgery to repair her cleft condition.
Initially, Elizabeth was nervous about undergoing another procedure. But her anxiety evolved into advocacy when the middle schooler from Wisconsin had a realization that would not only change her approach but empower her to help change lives.
“One afternoon, she had a sudden burst of perspective,” Elizabeth’s mother, Heather, recounted. “And she said, ‘Mom, here I am pushing back about having another surgery, and I just realized that there are kids all over the world who would give anything to have just one.’”
That’s when they decided to help children around the world access the same kind of care that Elizabeth received at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Inspired by Elizabeth’s surgeon and Operation Smile volunteer Dr. Arun Gosain, the mother-daughter duo launched their first “Team E” digital campaign to raise funds for people living with a cleft condition.
Hundreds of followers pitched in as Elizabeth shared her story on the “Team E” Smile Fund and Facebook pages. She posted personal videos and spoke openly about the challenges people living with a cleft lip or cleft palate can face.
It wasn’t long before she raised $16,000. With every surgery costing as little as $240, Elizabeth successfully changed the lives of more than 60 people.
“Operation Smile has helped me escape my own fears and put my focus on others,” said Elizabeth, who’s now 11 years old. “It’s been an amazing experience, and I’m so proud of our progress. So many people have helped me get to this point. I love Operation Smile, and it makes me so happy to be able to help other kids born with cleft.”
But that’s not where Elizabeth’s story ends – if anything, her fundraiser in April 2018 was just the beginning.
“What we witnessed was when she realized that could have a bigger impact on people, she wanted to keep telling her story and looking for what was next,” from presenting to church leadership for donations to working with her school district for support, Heather said.
“‘Team E’ has evolved into ‘Team WE.’”
It’s not just Elizabeth’s story. It’s the story of everyone who needs access to the safe surgical care they deserve.
“She realized that to make a greater impact, she needed to connect to more people and resources. ‘Team WE’ is the opportunity to join forces with the many people who have supported her to this point, as well as Dr. Gosain and his team and Operation Smile and their volunteers,” Heather said. “This partnership allows us to directly feel the impact that Operation Smile is having in the field and makes ‘Team WE’ bigger and stronger.”
The Alberti’s special bond with Arun is at the heart of this next fundraising effort for Operation Smile.
“Dr. Gosain is special because he is such wonderful surgeon and does amazing work. He has really tried to get to know my family and me as a person, and we have learned a lot about him as well,” Elizabeth said. “He was really interested in the fundraising and other projects I’ve worked on recently to improve the lives of kids with cleft.”
He was so interested and impressed by her work that he nominated Elizabeth for recognition as one of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) 2019 “Patients of Courage.”
"I have never come across another child as motivated to give back to the cleft community as Elizabeth," Arun wrote in his letter to the selection committee. "Whereas cleft lip and cleft palate may affect (about) one in a thousand children, it is the rare child who will devote their energy to empowering other cleft children as a peer and colleague when they most need this support: during early and middle school years.”
In May, the ASPS named Elizabeth a Patient of Courage and will recognize her during its meeting later this year. With this honor came a $1,000 donation to the charity of Elizabeth's choice – and she decided to gift it to Operation Smile.
“Team WE” kicked off in March with a fundraiser that focused on Asunción, Paraguay, where Arun served on a medical mission in May 2019 with two residents from Lurie Children’s Hospital.
“Being able to provide such an experience to the next generation of plastic surgeons, while transforming the lives of so many deserving children, reinforces my career choice,” Arun said. “I cannot imagine another career that could come close to matching this!”
The Alberti’s started a new “Team WE” Smile Fund and have since rallied $1,648, making surgery possible for seven more people. They've decided on an ultimate fundraising goal of $5,018, which represents the number of miles it takes to travel from Chicago to Asunción. But more importantly, it stands for the 20 people who are waiting to receive the surgery that will change their life.
“Elizabeth has always liked to think that because she was born with a cleft, other kids with it will have a better life,” Heather said. “And she has spent the last few years making that happen.”
As her story continues to unfold, Elizabeth said that this experience has taught her the importance of sharing one’s story – something that she encourages everyone to do.
“Stories are powerful,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve been amazed by how simply telling my story has inspired people to help others.”
In July 2019, Elizabeth did just that when she shared her story at Operation Smile Student Programs' International Student Leadership Conference at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.