Hearing about a 5,000-mile walk around Southeast Asia for a cause sounds like equal parts nobility––and, well, insanity. This is the first I’ve heard of a young man on a solitary trek for a year to foreign lands, to help underprivileged children.
I met 26-year-old Sgt. Winston Fiore of the US Marine Corps, as he made his way through Singapore. He is passing through to gather his bearings before beginning “Smile Trek,” an extreme walk across Southeast Asia to raise money and awareness for the ICSF (International Children’s Surgical Foundation).
ICSF specializes in pro bono facial reconstructive surgeries, like cleft palate operations, for children in developing countries. The rigorous trek will pass through Malaysia, Brunei, Laos and the Philippines; it will take roughly 11 months.
Fiore was wearing a yellow US Marine Corps T-shirt, khaki shorts and a military vest when I met him. Two photographs are laminated, side-by-side, into the pocket above his breast. The first photo is of a tanned Filipino child, her upper lip distorted by a gap at a discomfiting angle: a cleft palate. The second photo is of the same child, post-procedure, her eyes bright––cleft-free. This is all he has—his life for the year––a vest with straps and compartments to hold his only possessions, and the clothes on his back.
He exudes that carpe diem quality many people lack nowadays. We are the generation without cause, without war, without drive––but he has all three in abundance. Why is he doing this?
Man with a mission
Born in 1985 in Bloomington, Indiana, to French immigrants, Fiore grew up atop the family’s French restaurant, Le Petit Café. After high school, he joined AmeriCorps, America’s voluntary national service program seeking to make a difference in American education, public safety, health and environment. He then went on to serve with the United States Marine Corps as a sergeant before finishing school, dividing his time among New York, Indiana and Peru.
In 2007, his battalion spent three weeks training in Linguère, Senegal, where his eyes were first opened. As a white, middle-class American male, the sight of children scavenging through garbage and women carrying water on their heads for great distances was a rude awakening.
Amid the poverty and cultural differences that surrounded his experience there, Fiore found himself inspired to make global changes—in his own way. “Smile Trek” was conceived.
Fiore wanted to do something relevant and feasible. He wanted to help as many people as possible so, after thorough research, he decided his cause would be cleft palates. For a meager amount of $250, it is possible to rectify a child’s cleft and make it easier for him or her to socialize, eat, speak, hear and live a normal life. Fiore set himself a goal: $50,000 over 5,000 miles worth of Southeast Asian terrain, with all proceeds going directly to the ICSF.
By 2010, he had done two walks to prepare—one through Spain and another through South America. After a seven-month-long assignment with his battalion in Afghanistan, Fiore returned ready and raring to get started on securing a route, teaming with organizations and fund raising.
He began with a US Tour on his motorcycle, teaming up with his best friend Laurent. They rode from California to Indiana for two months, meeting up with local Rotarians and other interested sponsors, press and donors.
The road trip proved successful, and by September, Fiore was home in Indiana, getting ready to take a long flight to Singapore to begin an exciting, new chapter in his life. His route: Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand-Laos-Vietnam-Southeast China-Taiwan-the Philippines-Brunei-Singapore. It will reach its most exciting peak in July 2012.
By then, he will be walking right through the Philippines, where he, in cooperation with ICSF and Rotary Philippines, will document and participate in a large medical mission in the city of Dipolog.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “Because I feel like this trek is really going to come together in the Philippines. That’s where the most important bit is going to be.”
His enthusiasm isn’t just catching; it’s admirable. Even when asked about worries over civil unrest, or health concerns in these regions, Fiore appears undaunted. “I don’t foresee problems, but I’ll deal with them as they come.” And he means it.
Fiore is not one to give up. Once, over his walk in Spain, his ankle gave way. Unwilling to quit, he purchased a pair of crutches, and continued on the trek.
Between dinners with Rotarians, walks through the city, and talks for the 4th graders at the Singapore American School, I’ve become inspired by Fiore and his cause. At its heart, “Smile Trek” is simply one young man’s ability to synthesize realizing a personal dream with positively affecting a global reality. It is an effort to learn more about the world, and give back to it at the same time.
For young individuals wanting to pursue their own cause, he says, “Just do it!”
There is plenty ahead for Winston Fiore—and it will be a thrilling journey to see where these 5,000 miles take him and his beneficiaries.
If you would like to donate to the cause or learn more about Fiore, Smile Trek and ICSF, visit www.smiletrek.org. Fiore has currently raised almost $30,000 out of his target $50,000 goal.