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Attorney Peter Lagarias’ work with kids ‘never gets old’


Franchise attorney Peter Lagarias, center, with Rotaplast doctors in Sohag, Egypt, in 2010.

In his life as a franchise attorney, Peter Lagarias says, “things often don’t resolve for on and on and on.” By contrast, results are immediate from Rotaplast International’s work, in which teams of doctors, nurses and Rotary volunteers travel to foreign lands and repair cleft palates and lips for children whose families can’t afford the surgery.

”I’m telling you, when you see the first kid and the mom come up … and they’re crying tears of joy—it just never gets old,” Lagarias says. “It’s absolutely miraculous to see these outcast kids go from a life of ridicule and torment to become normal.”

Rotaplast International, the nonprofit Lagarias co-founded 25 years ago with plastic surgeon and good friend Dr. Angelo Capozzi, has performed more than 19,000 surgeries and traveled to 22 countries, doing 10 to 12 missions a year. The organization has a “stable” of doctors and nurses who are vetted for the missions, which also always include volunteers from Rotary International, the service organization that staffs the trips.

Lagarias, who is 66 this November and a prominent franchisee attorney at his own firm, Lagarias & Napell in San Rafael, California, got involved with Rotary as a young attorney in 1983, simply as a way to get his name known around town.

He was newly in private practice after serving at the Federal Trade Commission, “where I wanted to be an antitrust lawyer and I got pushed by the regional director to work on franchising,” he says. “I filed the first case under the new FTC rule.”

Dr. Albert Goldberg

Dr. Albert Goldberg, lead pediatrician, examines patients at opening clinic in Morelia, Mexico, in 2006, for Rotaplast International, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Capozzi was going on a mission for an organization called Interplast at the time, and wanted funding from the San Francisco Rotary Club, which had 600 members. “I was just astonished that they could fix these people. So we gave him money for two or three years,” and when Lagarias was elected president of the club he turned it into a Rotary-sponsored project, then formed a nonprofit foundation.

The first mission went to La Serena, Chile, in 1993, and they have since brought their services to cities in Argentina, Venezuela, and many more countries in Asia and Africa. The first trip was harrowing, Lagarias recalls. His Rotary counterpart in Santiago “got a general in the Air Force to commandeer a plane to take us up,” he says, to La Serena, which had “very few commercial planes and we had probably 80 boxes of stuff. We got there and we didn’t know what to expect, whether there would be 10 kids or a hundred,” he says.

“There were 400 kids. It got on national TV and kids were streaming in the whole two weeks we were there,” he says, and after screening the doctors determined they could operate on more than 100 children. “We did 140 kids, and yet it was just scratching the surface.” The cost of the mission? They had budgeted $18,000 and spent only $14,000.

Today, an average mission costs about $100,000, mainly for airfare to get everyone there. (Rotarian volunteers pay their own airfare.) Rotaplast International today has six employees and a $1.3 million annual budget.

Cleft lip surgery takes about an hour and a half; the palate can take two and a half hours. “The lip surgeries, it’s an art form,” Lagarias says. Social stigma is a huge factor for people with the condition, which also affects a patient’s ability to speak, eat and hear properly.

Lagarias relishes his work as an attorney, especially working with franchisees who have run into major problems.

“A lot of my clients, when they come to us, they’ve got everything on the line. Things aren’t going right—they don’t come see us if things are going right. There’s a lot of angst that the clients have, because if they lose this case everything goes down the drain.”

But nothing beats his work with Rotaplast International. “If you’ve seen one child get to their mom, it’s just something that’s so amazing,” says Lagarias, “the immediacy of the human impact, and the friends you make.”

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