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When Demaree Brady, a dental hygienist, decided she wanted to make life better for the children she cares for, she plunged right in.

She had no marketing plans, no specific amount of money in mind.

What she did have was a desire to help patients at the Pediatric Dentistry Clinic and the Craniofacial Center of Western New York, both at Children's Hospital. And the ability to swim long distances.

Thus was born Miles for Smiles, an effort that has raised about $25,000 in the past seven years.

Mrs. Brady has swum miles in the open waters of Lake Erie. She has promoted golf tournaments and snowmobile events, as well as a walk-a-thon. She started Tie Wars, in which hospital personnel competed in wearing the ugliest, the prettiest, the most original ties. Soon Miles the Bear, a stuffed animal wearing a swimsuit, will be available for sale.

"There's never enough to do all that's needed," she said of the dental clinics. "We are always understaffed, undersupplied.

"It's on my heart to do something when I see what children have to deal with, psychologically and physically. I just gave this over to God and said, 'You bring people to me.' "

At first it was Mrs. Brady alone. She simply told family, friends, colleagues and businesses that she was going to swim 3 1/2 miles in Lake Erie, and asked if they'd pledge money.

When Dr. Mary Beth Lopat, a pediatrician, heard her plans as they swam together at the Belmont YMCA, she volunteered to join the fund-raiser.

For a few years, it was just the two of them against Lake Erie. They mapped out a triangular 3 1/2 -mile route in a bay at Silver Creek, where the lake is relatively calm and free of boats.

"Only once did we have swells, which were one or two feet, and we were being chased by a thunderstorm," said Dr. Lopat. She added that they always have an accompanying boat, lifeguards and an ambulance on standby.

They extended the distance each year, eventually getting up to six miles in 1995.

But they realized they didn't need longer distances -- to make more money, they needed more swimmers.

So they invited masters swimmers to a one- and two-mile race, still held annually in Silver Creek, where the chamber of commerce and townspeople have embraced the event enthusiastically. Sanctioned by U.S. Masters Swimming, the race attracted 25 entrants last year. For this year's Aug. 10 event, at least twice that many are expected. Swimmers came from Ohio, Texas and Southern Ontario, and two swimmers from Egypt have inquired about the race, Mrs. Brady said.

Besides the swimming race, the Erie Community College Dental Hygiene Club and the Erie County Federation of Snowmobilers have raised money, and the Hideaway Bay Restaurant in Silver Creek is running a Buy a Smile campaign.

Also, the upscale golf facility Tee to Green, at Tonawanda and Amherst streets in Buffalo, plans to donate proceeds from grand opening events this summer. It's managed by Mrs. Brady's husband, John.

Mrs. Brady, 45, swam as a youngster and a teen-ager while attending St. Mark's School and Mount St. Mary Academy. She got away from it until 12 or 13 years ago, she said.

"I really like swimming, and it helps me stay in shape," she said. While training she swims a respectable 10,000 to 12,000 yards a week. "I can't swim every day because of a shoulder problem. I train hard and then I rest."

Mrs. Brady said she started Miles for Smiles for her young patients as well as her children, Kelly, 20, and Brendan, 18.

"I wanted my kids to know it's important that you give back to the community for all that you have," said Mrs. Brady, who plans to graduate from the University at Buffalo next spring with a degree in health care science and administration.

And she wanted to ensure that patients feel welcomed and are given superb care.

They come for procedures that range from teeth cleaning to treatment for cleft lip and cleft palette, one of the most commonly treated disorders. There are also medically complex cases, in which children have their disfigured faces surgically reconstructed. One child, who has undergone multiple surgeries, had almost no chin, a deformed lower jaw and a small tongue.

Though most of the patients have birth defects, some have been in car accidents and one child was hit in the face with a golf club.

"These kids need all kinds of care," said Dr. Robert Perry, chief of plastic surgery. "They need speech therapists; neurosurgeons; orthodontists; ear, nose and throat specialists."

"Parents can be pretty overwhelmed," said Dr. Laurie S. Sadler, clinical director. "Any time a child is born with birth defects, it's devastating. We try to ease that as best we can."

Money from Miles for Smiles has been used to help send patient coordinator Janice Rockwood to national conferences, to buy diagnostic equipment and to print educational brochures.

The next project is Operation Paint Brush, in which a waiting room will be transformed into "It's a Small World" and basement hallways will be turned into brightly decorated spaces.

Until now, the word on Miles for Smiles has spread by word of mouth, but a committee is developing a brochure. And Mrs. Brady said it's time to set short- and long-term goals, something that didn't seem necessary seven years ago.

She thinks about who can make posters, who would make phone calls. She considers whom she can tap for community representation on the board.

And she continues to mull over new ways to add more miles and more smiles.

"Next year, we'd like to include a run on the same day as the swimming," said Mrs. Brady, who starts swimming at dawn and is still going strong many hours later.

This year's event starts with a non-denominational worship service at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 10 at the George Borrello Town Park on Lake Erie in Silver Creek, where arts and crafts will be sold. The swimming race begins at 11. For information on Miles for Smiles, call 878-7520.

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