During the SES Kota Mama III expedition in 2001, the Mother ship of the expedition was accompanying the reed-built trimaran and the traditional balsa raft on the 4,000km voyage from the Andes to the Atlantic. One evening, the ship diverted to a remote lake known to have a population of huge caimen that were to be studied.
Stopping at a small village, the team were confronted by people seeking medical aid. One attractive mother came forward with a five year old daughter named Ronalda with a serious facial disfigurement and asked if we could make her child look like her. Dr Sam Allen, the senior doctor, reckoned that if the girl could be taken to an appropriate hospital, her cleft palate and hare lip could be put right. Whilst no firm promise was made, the team offered to try to help.
On return to England, Jim Masters set out to raise funds for the American charity 'Smile Train' to organise an operation at a special hospital in Sao Paulo in Brazil and raised some $4,000. Richard Drax, who had been on the expedition, was asked on behalf of TV South if the BBC would agree to him returning to Brazil to find the little girl and take her over 1,000km across Brazil for the operation.
The BBC agreed and Richard set out to find her. He reached the village in the midst of a terrible storm and persuaded Ronalda's mother to come with him to the hospital. Travelling by canoe and local bus, they reached Sao Paulo for operations on Ronalda's face. She went home, totally changed in appearance.
A short BBC film resulted and this enabled SES to raise around £20,000 to treat facially disfigured children. Another child in Brazil was helped later on. The Society was keen to help Ronalda to be educated but lost contact with her family. Yolima Cipagauta (SES's Representative in Latin America) never gave up and then Marcelo Mendez, a Brazilian Marine officer who had been with the expedition, was promoted and sent as a Colonel to Manaus on the Amazon. Yoli asked Marcelo to help and he sent out a Naval Officer to seek Ronalda.
On 22nd September 2018, Marcelo emailed to say Ronalda had been found. She is now married and has a three year old daughter, who sadly was born with the same disfigurement, but happily, this was put right at a local hospital. Ronalda is also expecting another baby. She has sent a message to the SES saying how grateful she is for all the Society did to change her life.
(Photos: Ronalda with her husband and three year old daughter and her three year old daughter before her operation)
Richard Drax became an MP for South Dorset and is delighted by this news.