Million Dollar Smiles
It was Anna Lopes’ 40th birthday when she felt the pang of purpose tugging at her heart. “I needed to find my mission, my purpose in life,” she reminisces of the day she decided to start devoting her time to charity work. Little did she know, this decision would spark smiles on the faces of children with life-threatening illnesses across the GTA. What originated as a small initiative to bring joy to those in need of it took a fresh direction when Lopes stumbled across a charity barbecue two years later. It was here that she met 4-year-old Rachel Boni, the pint-sized hostess of the affair, who was trying to raise funds to donate to the Hospital for Sick Children. Rachel was going through treatment for leukemia.
“This little girl inspired me enough that I reached out to her mother and said I wanted to help,” says Lopes. “I did an event for her, and we raised enough money to surprise her with her own piano.” It was the look on Rachel’s face at the unveiling of her gift that brought Million Dollar Smiles to life. Five years later, Rachel is in remission and has been cancer-free for three years — and Million Dollar Smiles has blossomed from a one-woman project to a committee of over 25 regular volunteers, all working to create “magical moments” for children with life-threatening illnesses. And how do they do it? “We give back to these kids what their conditions have stolen from them — play time,” Lopes explains. Building personalized playgrounds and delivering surprise four-foot-tall teddy bears seem to do the trick. “This year’s been crazy,” says Lopes, who balances her full-time job as a property manager with her duties at Million Dollar Smiles.
On the agenda are the Halloween Gala on October 25th and the Christmas Bear Drive on December 14th, but despite her schedule being as wild as the jungle gyms she builds, Lopes claims it’s also just as fun. “I’ll never forget when one volunteer came to me and said, ‘Anna, I thought I was going to give up one of my weekends to help out. But after building the playground, I realized I had earned the weekend,’” she recalls. “People don’t realize that that’s the true meaning of life — giving of yourself and having no expectations back.”
This philosophy has not only earned Million Dollar Smiles the promise of charitable status in six months — “a huge leap,” Lopes says — but has nudged the Scarborough native under an international spotlight. On Friday, August 9, Lopes received the eWomen Network’s Humanitarian of the Year Award at the 13th annual International Conference & Business Expo in Dallas, Texas. “They found me through Facebook, nominated me, and I got selected — out of 4,000 women!” says an incredulous Lopes. “I’m so honoured.”When asked how Million Dollar Smiles has changed her life, Lopes answers, “Little things don’t stress me out. They’re nothing compared to what these kids have to go through on their journey. They completely inspire me.”