Cindy McCain's Soft Spot: Operation Smile

Feels personal tie to charity that helps kids get facial surgery for defects.

ByKATE SNOW via logo

June 21, 2008 — -- While Americans are attending church this Sunday, Cindy McCain — the woman who could one day be first lady — will be walking around a garbage dump, far removed from her comfortable life in Phoenix.

This is the other side of Cindy McCain — not the model-perfect spouse of the candidate who wears pearls and designer clothes. On this side of the world, she wears old hiking boots, puts her hair up in a ponytail and wants to "get to work."

It's not a newly invented Cindy McCain either. She's been volunteering on various missions for years. You just might not have heard much about it.

A new ABC News-Washington Post poll released this week found more than one-third of Americans had no opinion of Cindy McCain. Asked if she is "mysterious," McCain smiled.

"I don't think I am very mysterious," she said. "I have led my life differently. ... I am not the candidate, I have never been front and center. I do the things I enjoy, and I do the things that are important to me. And do them in a way that I like to do them."

On Thursday, that meant a visit to a hospital in the coastal Vietnamese city of Nha Trang with the organization Operation Smile.

When McCain arrived, parents were already lining up to have their young children screened, hoping they might qualify for the organization's promise of free facial surgery to fix cleft palates, cleft lips or severe facial deformities. In fact, they have given out more than 115,000 surgeries in 26 countries.

In an interview with ABC News, McCain said a simple $286 surgery can change a child's life forever.

"A child that would probably be kept in a closet or kept in the back part of the house and never really be seen by family friends or neighbors ... can not only come out but can have a productive, fulfilling life," she said.

McCain stopped to talk to Mai Thi Kim Huong, a mother holding a 9-month-old boy with a severe cleft lip. Mai had no idea who the blonde foreigner was, just that she might help her family.

"If I had to pay, I wouldn't have enough money," she said. She and her husband are farmers.

"I have a very soft spot in my heart for Operation Smile," McCain said. "I think many times I gain more from this than the people that we help do because it revitalizes me. I think you can lose track of things inside a campaign bubble, so I think it's very important to get out and go back to what I do best and love most and that's this."

For McCain, it is also personal. Sixteen years ago, on a visit to an orphanage in Bangladesh, she saw a tiny baby with severe facial deformities and a cleft palate.

"I had been working there somewhat for a few weeks and I always kept going back to her at the end, at the beginning of the day," McCain said. "Whatever I was doing, I would always wind up at her little bassinet. I would hold her and play with her. So when it came time to leave, there was just something there. I mean, she chose me."

On the plane ride home, McCain decided she and her husband would adopt baby Bridget. She told Sen. John McCain of her plan when he met her at the airport.

"He was remarkable," she said. "I stepped off the airplane and handed him a new baby, and he never missed a beat."

Sixteen years later, their daughter Bridget is a thriving teenager.

"It took a long time and it's painful," McCain said. "She's just a remarkable kid, a trooper and she's tough."

A few years later, McCain would become involved in helping other children.

A Vietnamese waiter approached the McCains in a Phoenix restaurant and asked if they could help his baby niece, Le Thi Phuoc, get surgery.

Mrs. McCain flew the girl to Phoenix, paid for the surgeries and kept her at her home for months.

On Thursday, McCain reunited with the Le family in Vietnam. Phuoc is now 11 years old and loves to skip rope.

"There are people with beautiful hearts who want to help others," said the girl's father, Le Van Tan.

"After seeing her help, I am not surprised that miracles can happen anymore," he added. "Having a defected child is very scary, but now she [Cindy McCain] has returned me with a beautiful daughter. I am very thankful."

McCain has traveled to Vietnam many times since her first trip in 1988.

She said she was bitter the first time she went, but learned a lesson from her husband, who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years.

"The first time I came, I think I really came with a chip on my shoulder, because of what had happened to him," McCain said. "And he taught me about forgiveness. ... I learned through his eyes what took place, and learned through the Vietnamese eyes about friendship and forgiving."

If she were first lady, she said, she would want to encourage every American to give back, to volunteer.

"I take people with me when I go because I want people to get involved," she said. "It aggravates me when people sit and whine about things that are happening and then don't do anything about it. You don't have to go around the world. You can go right out to your corner and help, or you can go right out to the center of your city and help, but get involved."

For more information on Operation Smile, click HERE.

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