Lives Touched

Cherise Graham Wintz, Operation Changing Lives director of events, holds art work from Longstreet Elementary School students prior to the organization's 11th annual 5K Run/Walk and toy drive, which will be Saturday, Nov. 21.

Cherise Graham Wintz doesn’t care what she has to do this year to make sure local school children get their Christmas gifts.

Whatever it takes, she said, she and her team with Operation Changing Lives will make it happen.

Despite the many brick walls she has encountered, she said, and the news her beloved Daytona Beach Shores Christmas Parade has been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she is determined to make Operation Changing Lives’ 11th annual 5K Run/Walk a success Saturday, Nov. 21.

“It’s always on the Saturday before Thanksgiving,” Ms. Wintz said of the 3.1-mile race that has regularly been in the Town of Ponce Inlet. This year it has been moved to Daytona Beach Shores, starting at Crabbie Joes, 3701 S.Atlantic Avenue, and ending there.

The race will begin at 7:30 a.m. on South Atlantic Avenue (not on the beach). Runners and walkers will be required to wear masks at the outset of the race, she said. They may remove masks during the race but must put them back on near the finish line. Also, runners will be segregated in groups of about 20, spaced well apart, and will depart at different times to avoid large crowds.

“Everybody’s not going to be corralled all together. People want to be outside. They want to do these events and everybody has been very cooperative,” Ms. Wintz said. “When I tell them there’s a mask mandate, they say it’s not a problem.”

She said she has even run in a few newly modified races herself and thinks they’re just fine.

So far, there are 225 entries in the race, the oldest 92 and the youngest maybe three, Ms. Wintz said. The young ones will do a kiddie dash, running or walking one block. “We normally would have a police officer run with the kids,” she said of past years, and hopes this year will be the same.

As Operation Changing Lives director of events for the south end of Volusia County, Ms. Wintz has been organizing community outreach events, such as the Christmas parade (which she founded nine years ago), holiday toy drives, 5K runs and charity golf tournaments. But, she said, OCL is not just surgeries as many may think, it’s reaching out. “We try to do a little bit of everything we can do.”

The organization, founded in 2008 by Maxillofacial surgeons Dr. John Akers and Dr. Curtis Schalit, has been providing free surgeries for people with facial deformities, such as cleft lip and cleft palate, across the U.S. and abroad. During the past nine years, their physician’s group, Florida Oral and Facial Surgical Associates, has donated more than $500,000 in surgeries for patients.

The group’s mission is to change lives, one face at a time, with the help of private donors, local businesses and volunteers. OCL offers patients a chance at a fresh start, giving them self esteem and a more positive outlook on life.

Dr. Roger Thayer, a highly skilled surgeon who works at the surgical associates and with OCL, said the group’s purpose is to help make a fantastic difference in the lives of those it helps. “What we take for granted everyday like a nice smile or access to health care, there are so many people out there who don’t have that opportunity,” he said.

Although the surgeons are not traveling during the pandemic to perform surgeries outside the country, Ms. Wintz said there is still so much they are doing for people in need locally, things she’s probably not even aware of.

“There are many people here in Volusia County we can help,” said Dr. Schalit, chief surgeon of the Division of Maxillofacial Surgery at Halifax Health Medical Center and an international lecturer on cosmetic facial surgery. “Some of them have had cancer and have gone through radiation and lost all of their teeth, for example, so there is no shortage of help the group can give locally.”

The organization’s services also include providing funding for people in need of surgery, helping with medical expenses, or helping patients recover from drug or alcohol addiction. It helps with back to school supplies for kids, and gifts at Christmas. Dr. Schalit personally conducts yearly toy drives at his office in Daytona Beach as well as at schools, such as Bunnell Elementary School, providing Christmas gifts for more than 1,000 children in the past.

Proceeds from entry fees to this year’s race as well as toy drives will go toward gifts for underprivileged school children. Normally Ms. Wintz receives the donated toys at her business, Cherise’s Salon, at 3612 S. Atlantic Ave. This year’s is seemingly off to a slow start, however. Ms. Wintz grimaced as she pointed to a few gifts in the corner. Last year her entire salon was packed with gifts of every shape, size and type. Another room next door was stocked so fully with toys it looked like a retail outlet.

“People can bring toys to the race or drop them here,” Ms. Wintz said. Another drop off location is the Daytona Beach Shores Department of Public Safety at 3050 S. Atlantic Avenue, she added.

Plans for how the gifts will be distributed this year haven’t been decided yet, she said. Having the kids come to the salon to pick out their gifts isn’t going to happen as it has in previous years. “We’re thinking about how they’re doing trunk or treat (events). Find a place where we are just able to set up, and people can just drive by in their cars. And maybe, depending on the age and the gender, have different areas where they can get the gifts,” she said. “We just want to make this safe, fun and continue on.”

Ms. Wintz ran behind her desk at the salon to retrieve a long mural of painted handprints from school kids who attended her gift giving party last year. “Every year at Christmas, when we have the party, the kids do hand prints with paint. This one is from Longstreet (Elementary),” she said smiling brightly as she stretched it out.

“The same families come every year, a lot of foster parents and grandparents. That’s who I really want to help. It’s heartbreaking. We have to do something,” she said. “And whether I drive through the neighborhoods and start just throwing things out the window at people . . . that might be the delivery this year! We are getting gifts distributed. We will make that happen.”

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