On June 21, 25-year-old Ryan Caruso set off on a solo 1,200 mile kayaking journey along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, starting from South Padre Island, Texas and finishing in Panama City, Fla. Caruso’s drive to complete this kayaking trip isn’t for the fame or name recognition—it's much bigger than that. Caruso’s motivation behind completing this two-month journey is his love and commitment to spreading awareness and fundraising for the life-changing Virginia Beach-based charity, Operation Smile.
Operation Smile is an international medical charity that has dedicated 35 years to improving the health and lives of children around the world by providing safe and free surgical care to developing countries. Since 1982, the charity has provided hundreds of thousands of free surgeries to children and young adults who suffer from a cleft lip, cleft palate or any other facial deformities.
“It’s an amazing organization,” remarks Caruso, “I’m really happy that Operation Smile is pushing that aspect of their charity.” Caruso has been involved with Operation Smile for seven years and has completed other adventures to raise money for the organization including a two-month trek through Australia where he was able to raise enough money for seven surgeries. The 2017 James Madison University graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing has also kayaked from Virginia to Tennessee and has even climbed Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador.
While Caruso understood that changing the lives of seven people is an outstanding achievement, he also knew that he could do more for those who still needed his help. Caruso’s current trek across the Gulf is completely unsupported, as there are no other boats following Caruso nor any other additional personnel with him. He is able to remain connected and vocal to Operation Smile’s cause by updating his blog and Facebook. “It’s very isolated. I make jokes and talk to myself to try and narrate the day [laughs]. That’s another reason I’m happy with the change,” Caruso shares. “I get to stay connected with people. I get to talk to family and I have social media.”
While this expedition will be a remarkable accomplishment, Caruso has encountered obstacles, from having to modify the course of the journey to avoid dangerous storms and hurricanes to not being able to carry as much water as he had hoped and even breaking a rudder on the second day. These challenges help remind Caruso why he is on the water. “You have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring or what is going to happen,” Caruso says. “It helped me remember that no matter what happens, you have to find a solution.”