I walked into my kitchen one Sunday andcame across a booklet entitled “Operation Smile: Changing LivesOne Smile at a Time.” In it were children with the biggest eyesever. I’d seen pictures of beautiful children in terriblecircumstances before, but these were different - they had a facialdeformity called cleft lips, a gap in the upper lip that makes it hard(if not impossible) to eat, drink and speak. After seeing thosepictures, I began to research the organization.
Operation Smile,founded in 1982 by plastic surgeon Dr. William Magee and his wife, nurseand clinical social worker Kathy Magee, is a not-for-profit organizationthat performs life-altering facial surgery for children. To date, it hasperformed 98,000 operations in 30 countries. From the moment I saw thesepictures, an overwhelming feeling of hope filled my heart. I knew I hadthe power to help.
After attending mission training, I was chosento travel with Operation Smile to Cebu, Philippines for two weeks inFebruary. As a member of the student team, I was responsible forbringing toothbrushes and toys for the children to keep them busy beforetheir operations. I would also be responsible for teaching basichealthcare, oral rehydration therapy, nutrition, and dental care to thefamilies.
I arrived at the Vicente Sotto Memorial Hospital with aroll of stickers on my arm, bubbles around my neck, and a smile. Duringthe first two days, the surgeons and nurses examined the children tomake sure they were healthy enough for the operation. I spent this timeplaying catch, blowing bubbles, and giving high-fives to the children.Although we could not communicate because of the language barrier, wewere able to exchange laughs and smiles. Not being able to use wordsgave me the opportunity to connect with them on a deeper level. Afterthe first day, I forgot about their deformities and all I could see weretheir big, loving eyes.
The second day I met Merlyn, a15-year-old girl with a unilateral cleft lip which appears as a slightopening in her upper lip. Her 27-year-old sister brought her by boatfrom Saiton, Negros Oriental, a small province nearby, which cost $500that they had borrowed from family and friends. Last year, Merlynstopped going to school because she was ashamed of her deformity. Unlikemany families who have children with clefts, Merlyn’s familyaccepts and loves her.
“My family wants her to bebeautiful. That’s why I brought her. It took us seven hours on aboat, we are so happy they can fix her,” Merlyn’s sistertold me. My eyes welled up with tears and all I could do was hugher.
It was hard to fathom what the first 15 years ofMerlyn’s life must have been like. Imagine being shunned by yourcommunity for something you were born with, and could not change.Imagine not having friends or being able to go to school because of whatyou look like. I could not. After her surgery, Merlyn’s sisterwrote me a note: Thank you, thank you so much, thank you. We love youalways and may God bless you always!
Her words left mespeechless. With tears in my eyes I hugged Merlyn and her sister. Atthis moment I knew I had the ability to help others. I may not be asurgeon or a nurse, but as a 17-year-old student, I was able to touchthe heart of a girl and change her life.
Operation Smile gaveMerlyn, and many like her, the opportunity to lead a normal life with anew sense of dignity. This year in Cebu alone, 180 children underwentthis life-changing surgery. With the unyielding support of donors,surgeons and volunteers, Operation Smile continues to change lives onesmile at a time. Their website is www.operationsmile.org.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.