The Swim for Smiles foundation, based in Chapel Hill, NC, was co-founded by Gary Kayye and Laura Gondek.
When Gary’s daughter, Annabelle, was four and a half years old, she became sick with an unidentifiable virus. In just nine and a half weeks Annabelle was seen by over 30 doctors, had 3 spinal taps, 2 MRI’s, countless CAT scans and all sorts of neurology tests. Finally, when it was beginning to seem like all the testing was to no avail, she was diagnosed with ADEM (Acute Demyelenating Encephalomyelitis) by Dr Tennison – the Director of Pediatric Neurology at UNC Hospitals.
ADEM is an immune disease of the brain that usually occurs following a viral infection, but can also appear spontaneously. The disease presents itself very much like MS (multiple sclerosis), producing inflammatory lesions in the brain and on the spinal cord, resulting in headaches, fever and total body pain.
The months following her diagnosis were filled with a strict regiment of steroids and rehab, but eventually Annabelle was healthy again. Upon her doctor’s advice, Annabelle turned to swimming as a way to deal with her newly discovered asthma.
Following his daughter’s experience with UNC Hospitals, Gary decided to try to make future experiences better for kids in the Children’s Hospital. Gary teamed up with Laura, a fellow swim parent and created the Swim for Smiles Foundation in 2005. The first event held was a Chapel Hill vs. Durham swim meet. But since, the organization has grown and holds numerous events, including the 2nd largest children’s triathlon in the world.