Having the chance to help people smile is a life-changing gift that I was fortunate enough to receive through Operation Smile Philippines.
My journey began in 10th grade, when I was invited by a friend to attend a medical mission in Cebu City. I agreed out of curiosity.
As the days went on, I found myself feeling excited at the prospect of experiencing what it was like to be an OpSmile student volunteer. Little did I know that giving in to mere curiosity would ignite my passion for helping others.
The mission site came as an overwhelming shock to a 10th grader like me. There they all were—kids and young adults with cleft conditions. While I felt so much sympathy, I also felt uncomfortable seeing them, to the point that I avoided making any eye contact.
Later that night, I realized that what I did was wrong. Being a volunteer means helping people unconditionally, and I realized I could help by bringing joy and enthusiasm during the mission, and that’s what I did.
I returned to the mission site, and met the mother of a 3-year-old boy with a unilateral cleft lip. She had this awkward and embarrassed smile but I found myself connecting with her. Listening to stories about the taunts and disparaging comments they received made my heart feel so heavy.
Her child’s turn for surgery came. I assured her he was in safe hands. When I saw the mother’s face after the child’s successful operation, an indescribable feeling hit my heart. She thanked me over and over while shedding tears, but it was her smile that I noticed. It was . . . different, unlike anything I have ever seen.
The joy the mother radiated was infectious. It filled the recovery room with excitement and smiles from the doctors, the nurses and volunteers. It was at that moment that my life changed—sparking this passion and advocacy for the cause of Operation Smile.
In the summer of 2017, I attended the International Student Leadership Council (ISLC) in Rome, Italy. It was an international conference for high school students to connect with other Operation Smile student volunteers, and deepen their knowledge about the organization. Seeing many others who shared the same passion motivated and inspired me to become more active.
One of the talks in the ISLC I will never forget is by the founder, Dr. Bill Magee, who said, “Love is a decision to make somebody else’s problem your problem.” A simple yet inspirational message that strengthened my resolve to do more as a student volunteer. Returning to the Philippines, I became more involved, joining annual medical missions in my hometown, Cebu City.
After graduating from high school in 2018, I took an internship program for OpSmile for three months, seeing firsthand what it was like working behind the scenes during medical missions. Each mission had its own highlights: having informative conversations with the international doctors, creating life-long friendships with other student volunteers and my favorite—stories told by patients or their parents, with each story being different but similar at the same time.
One story that stood out was shared by a mother during a medical mission in Bacolod. She had an 8-year-old girl who would cry every night, repeatedly asking her mom why she was “born like this,” why she looked different and why people always laughed at her.
The mom would tell the child there was nothing wrong with her, that she was beautiful and that she should ignore the stares and hurtful comments from people in their village. When she heard about Operation Smile, the mother did everything in her power to bring her child to the mission area.
It’s heartwarming stories like this that fuel my drive to work harder and spread awareness about Operation Smile, making sure people understood that cleft conditions are a matter of concern, and those who have the condition should not be made fun of or ridiculed.
All these unforgettable experiences made me more resolute in establishing a student advocacy club in the Philippines, and let other Filipino students experience the life-changing moments I’ve had.
But planning it alone was challenging, aside from the fact that university life came into the picture. Balancing academics with volunteerism became difficult, to say the least, so plans to establish a student advocacy chapter in the Philippines had to be paused.
The opportunity came in December 2020, when Operation Smile Student Programs International launched the annual Step Up Symposium, a college leadership conference aimed at spreading awareness on how the medical charity contributes to global health and how students can get involved. My sister and I joined this conference, which eventually led to the establishment of Operation Smile Philippines’ College Leadership Council (OSPCLC). Our goal: become catalysts for change through student volunteers committed to spreading awareness about Operation Smile.
We started with a core group composed of four dedicated and committed college students: Stephanie Ferrer, a marketing student from De La Salle University, and premed students Pau Derilo, John Benedict Tan, and Brettel Remotigue. Working with them makes me believe that Filipino students have the potential to grow OpSmile’s global movement here in the Philippines by inspiring and motivating high school and college students to put up their own chapter within their educational institutions.
Ultimately, we envision a future where students around the Philippines are equipped with the knowledge, support, and resources to spread awareness and increase access to safe surgery for Filipinos with cleft lips and palates.
Looking back, I am amazed at this journey that began out of simple curiosity, giving me the opportunity to help change lives one smile at a time.
The author is an Industrial Engineering student at DLSU. He has been involved with Operation Smile for five years as a student volunteer. Want to tell us about your advocacy? Email [email protected]