FLEMINGTON, NJ - She has a history with the organization that dates back to elementary school, and now she is not letting something like a pandemic stop her from running a marathon to support Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft charity empowering local medical professionals to provide cleft surgery to children globally.

Grace Peters, of Flemington, was born with a cleft lip and palate, and her parents heard about Smile Train through her team of medical professionals at St. Peters Hospital in New Brunswick.

“As an organization, Smile Train opened doors for me,” she said. “Until I got to high school, I never met anyone else born with a cleft lip or palate. Smile Train would send us before and after pictures of the children that we supported around the world, and seeing photos of those children who looked like me made me feel like I was part of something really special.”

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“I felt like I could connect with these other kids in a way that no one else could, and that empowered me,” she added.

Peters graduated in 2019 from Washington College with a double major in international studies and cultural anthropology, and a minor in African studies, and she was looking for experience in international non-profit or organizational work. She said she found internships on the Smile Train website, and knew this was what she wanted.

“The next week, I got an email from Smile Train and went through a few interviews, and then got the internship,” she said. “I immediately thought back to my elementary self, who was so proud of those Smile Train pamphlets, and couldn’t believe how connected to myself I felt.”

Since January, Peters has been working full time on the New York programs team as an associate.

When she started there in September 2019, Peters said, she remembers hearing two colleagues speak about Team EMPOWER, a group of people who support Smile Train through different athletic events. Peters said she heard them talk about running the New York City Half in March 2020, and she wanted to get involved.

“I was so excited to have a half marathon to train for and to raise money for Smile Train while doing it,” she said. “I ended up raising over $2,000, however the race got canceled because of COVID-19. I was so bummed.”

In August, Peters said, Team EMPOWER announced they had a team for the Big Surreal Virtual Challenge, a month-long interactive virtual experience where participants have the option to complete five challenges beginning on Sept. 1. Those challenges include running a 5K, 12K, 11-miler, 21-miler and a marathon.

“I was excited and wanted to join, especially since I had missed the NYC Half,” she said. “I set my Smile Train fundraising goal with Team EMPOWER at $1,000.”

Peters said she had a goal of running all five challenges, but decided she needed more time to train for the full marathon.

“Also, after the 11-miler, my knee was having some problems, so I don’t want to hurt myself,” she said. “This challenge is my first Team EMPOWER event, but could be considered my second since I was signed up for the NYC Half.”

Peters said the challenge was supposed to last the entire month of September, but, due to the wildfires on the West Coast, it was extended to the month of October.

“As unfortunate as that is, I now have another month to complete more challenges, fingers crossed my knee recovers for the 21-miler,” she said, “and raise more money for Smile Train.”

Anyone interested in donating can visit https://www.mysmiletrain.org/participant/GracePeters.

“I have also been making jewelry and mask chains, and donating 100 percent of my sales to the fundraiser,” she said.

The jewelry can be viewed on her Instagram page, @CraftsintheQ.

Peters said she has been running for years. When she was in high school, she was a Girls on the Run student coach, and she loved how that program brought together the importance of a healthy body by being active, but also a healthy mind.

“I have always been into running, but I didn’t start running long distance until my freshman year of college,” she said. “I signed up for the Philly Half Marathon, and since then, I have completed several 10K and half marathons.”

Peters said training is important for runners, and since she signed up for the challenge just a few weeks before it began, she didn’t have time to properly train.

“I definitely went into this month knowing that I was mentally capable of running these long runs, but that I would have to listen to my body first,” she said. “During my 11-miler, my knee started to really hurt. I have always had knee issues, so I wasn’t nervous, but I knew I had to take it down a notch.”

At mile 9, Peters said, she started walking.

“That was hard for me because I really wanted to finish the run strong,” she said. “At the end of the day, you only have one body and you have to listen to it, and overworking it is not worth it.”

Peters said she is lucky to be part of Team EMPOWER and get updates on all the events they are doing for Smile Train. She said she knows there will be plenty of runs to participate in in the future, even if she isn’t able to finish the five challenges.

Born and raised in Flemington, Peters moved back to town after college. She said she had planned to move to New York City, but that was derailed due to the pandemic.

“Flemington was a great place to grow up,” she said. “I love the proximity to NYC and Philly, but also the small towns along the Delaware River, which is where I have done most of my running for this challenge.”