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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Michael Nebeker, left, Dr. Bill Magee and his wife, Kathy, of Operation Smile, discuss LDS Church donation Wednesday.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will donate more than $900,000 to Operation Smile as part of a formal, collaborative effort, benefiting children born with severe cleft conditions, officials announced Wednesday.

The joint effort will assist children in four specific countries — Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Jordan — and includes a $927,400 contribution from the church's humanitarian fund, which is enough to give 3,864 children new smiles and hope for their future during the next 12 months.

"I can't think of a more remarkable gift than to give a child a smile back," said Michael S. Nebeker, a director and chairman of the Major Gifts Committee for the Utah Chapter of Operation Smile.

Operation Smile, is a nonprofit, international medical charity that started in 1982 and has a presence in more than 60 countries, with some $60 million in annual donations.

It's a mobilized force of medical professionals and other volunteers who provide safe, effective reconstructive surgery for children born with facial deformities, such as cleft lip and cleft palate.

This isn't the first time the LDS Church has donated to Operation Smile, but it is by far the largest donation. The church has given a total of $275,000 to Operation Smile since 1991 through the LDS Foundation.

Besides monetary donations, the church has also helped in other ways. Kathleen S. Magee, co-founder and president of Operation Smile, said full-time Mormon missionaries in foreign nations have often assisted the organization with various behind-the-scenes volunteer duties.

"They speak the language," she said, stressing that alone is a major contribution.

She said she has often said, "I need the elders."

Her husband, Dr. William P. Magee Jr., co-founder and chief executive officer of Operation Smile, also had praise for the church's efforts.

He said while there is no one hero in this medical effort, he described the church as "an organization that embodies service."

"It's a real honor to go side-by-side," he said.

Fred Riley, project manager for the LDS Church's Humanitarian Services, said the church selected those four particular countries for three reasons: (1) The great needs of the children there; (2) Operation Smile has already scheduled medical missions there; and (3) The LDS Church already has a history of humanitarian service in those countries.

Besides the financial donation, he said the church will also assist Operation Smile in other ways — encouraging church members with medical expertise to volunteer in those areas and also receiving help from church members living in those countries.

"We hope that this collaboration and partnership goes beyond the medical," Riley said.

He thanked church members who have donated to the Humanitarian Fund, since they made this possible.

"We are excited to join arms with this organization that has done so much good."

Magee said that anyone can donate directly to Operation Smile on its website.

"We need human and financial assets," he said.

Ethiopia, for example, only has two plastic surgeons in the entire country and yet some 100,000 children need cleft surgery. Such birth deformities are more common in impoverished nations.

More than 200,000 children are born with a severe cleft condition each year — many unable to eat, speak, socialize or smile. In some places these children are shunned and rejected. In many cases parents cannot afford surgeries and that's where Operation Smile provides free surgery — with more than 150,000 total children assisted so far. The group also focuses on the medical staffs in other nations becoming more self-reliant. Utah's chapter of Operation Smile is the nation's longest-serving chapter, having started 26 years ago.

For more information, or to make a donation, go to www.operationsmile.org.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com