My Operation Smile Experience

About March last year, I flew to Iloilo for an immersion of sorts. No, it wasn’t required and I wasn’t paid to help out or even sponsored flight tickets or accommodations. Heck, I didn’t even think I was needed. It was a dark time of my life that was induced by some personal problems (with myself and others). The world conspired to make me realize what life is supposed to be about, when I was able to catch an ad of Operation Smile. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and focusing on the negative, I decided to put myself out there for others, after a couple of research about this organization. Throughout elementary and high school in St. Paul Pasig and college in Ateneo, I was able to go to outreaches and the like, but this time was an entirely new experience. I signed up for it on my own. It wasn’t something that was “required” or “necessary” for my life to go on. It was purely my own choice to grow and let others grow in gratitude for all the blessings and good things in life.

My bad – this is about one year overdue already. I couldn’t exactly find the right timing, words and heart to post this, as I didn’t want it to be something I finished just to bump off my list of the gazillion things I need to do.

I originally planned to post this last Holy Week, but I couldn’t find the right treatment for the photos in time, so I spent the next few months trying to sort out the 400+ pictures I took during this occasion and trying out different kinds of post-processing techniques for them. Until life happened and my priorities had to shift drastically. Call me guilty as my fear came true – I had to bump it off my list of things to do to make room for other kinds of work.

When I suddenly had free time, my mind was so distracted that I couldn’t bring myself to write something that was half-hearted. These kids deserve much better than empty thoughts. Recently, I’ve encountered some bumps along the way that have sparked some very familiar feelings from a time when I still hadn’t experienced this.

Having a heart entails much more than understanding yourself and the things that you don’t own or you can’t change. I think it’s also about understanding others and the things that you *can* change, like how you can help other people *in your own capacity* to live better lives. Or even change your perspective when something doesn’t go the way you want it to.

This was one of my greatest learnings for the past two years. It’s not always going to be about me. As I exposed myself to the wonders and realities of the world, *my* world suddenly became very small.

Well, going back to the medical mission in Iloilo, I was suddenly appointed as an official Smile Ambassador after the president and his team found out who I was and what I was doing. As an ambassador they never really required me to do things. Then I was set – I *MUST* share this to my readers. Tricia Will Go Places shouldn’t always be about going to places like France, HK or Japan. I have always been vocal about trying to make it a deeper platform to communicate not just my thoughts and interests, but also things that can benefit other people.

Operation Smile is an organization that helps heal broken smiles of children who suffer from facial deformities, particularly cleft lip and/or palates. My first encounter with someone who had this was my friend Ria, who now runs a blog called Cleft Lip and Pretty. She describes it – “It’s a big dream, to spread warmth, happiness and confidence in a world where things like anonymous internet haters and ignorance are abundant, but I believe it’s possible. I believe everyone has a spark in them, a spark that makes them positively pretty. The blog will be full of anything & everything happy, and my personal journeys.” You can read her inspiring story here where she talks about being born bilateral cleft-lip-and-palate, experiencing a lot of bullying and ridicule, staying strong (with the help of herself and others) and making things happen for herself.

Speaking of making things happen, this is how Operation Smile made it happen. I salute those who can do this full time and have dedicated their lives helping others – I could only wish to be as selfless as they are. But it was also them who taught me that we all have different strengths and we can help in our own little way if we wanted to.

I’d hate myself for making this about me, so here goes my effort to get my message across–

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The medical mission I went to was coincidentally an international one. Operation Smile is not just an organization in the Philippines, but is actually a very big one that’s present in other countries.

What’s interesting though, is that the founders, Kathy and William MaGee, were inspired to create Operation Smile when they went to the Philippines to do volunteer work back in the 80s.

Different doctors and volunteers came from various countries like China, Vietnam the US, and Australia, to perform 150 or so surgeries in Iloilo.

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One of them was a child life specialist who was in charge of keeping the kids entertained while waiting for their turn at the screen test.

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The kids had to be screened first because they only have enough time and resources for a certain number of patients, and some kids also aren’t healthy enough yet to survive a surgery. Things like fever and flu can very much affect the outcome of the surgery (albeit being minor) so it’s always a better idea to come back when the kids are in much better shape.

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The thing is, it’s hard not to be chosen since all of the families have their own stories to tell. Some traveled 8 hours just to have their kids operated on. Others voiced out their own personal experiences that entailed a lot of hardships and discrimination on their end.

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Some kids are bullied and kept from socializing as an effect. They stop school, and never really get to properly speak.

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Their parents also have their own share of sad stories about being ostracized. Other people put the blame on them for producing children with abnormalities. Others, due to lack or proper education, blame only the mother for carrying the bad gene that causes cleft lip and palates. What’s even sillier is that others are afraid of being near them in case they might get infected or contaminated.

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At the assessment station.

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At the photography/imaging station.

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This large room had different stations (like dentistry, etc.) to check if the kids were really fit for surgery. They also compiled all the forms at the end of the day to prioritize which ones should go first or which ones they can save for the next medical mission in Iloilo.

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Outside the hospital were kids and parents making friends with each other. The vibe in this medical mission was far from sad or depressing, since everyone was smiling and having fun.

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These two girls were so adorable. They had a number of model poses which they weren’t afraid to show me and my camera.

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Twins! Their mom had it too. What’s good about Operation Smile is that they also research and interview the patients during screening. What I found out was that malnutrition can also cause this kind of deformity, apart from it being genetic.

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The cutest baby! So fluffy! And she had the nicest curly hair too!

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Definitely my favorite picture here. Caught this girl laughing while playing with the other kids.

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Even the parents are happy!

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The line for screening extended until outside the hospital. There were about 200+ who came here hoping for that major change in their children’s appearances.

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Quite random but some students from across the hospital waved hello since they apparently read my blog! :D

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The kids were happy with some stickers that we were giving away.

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Waiting for her turn to be screened. It was a nerve-wracking experience for some with children that were slightly sick or frail. This girl, however, had nothing to worry about! (She ended up having the surgery.)

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Surgery day arrived and asked the parents and the kids if they were scared or excited. Most of them answered both! They said the operating procedure seemed very scary and difficult, but they were still excited because it will give their kids better self-esteem in the long run!

Plus they can finally eat and speak properly! :D

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The big room with the screening stations was transformed into a resting area for those who were done with their surgeries.

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The area with the chairs by the entrance was transformed into a waiting/sleeping area for those who had no choice but to stay in the hospital since they didn’t have anywhere else to go to.

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They were showing Looney Tunes which was very nostalgic for me as I used to watch the same stuff when I was younger.

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In the meantime, student volunteers helped in their own capacity to educate the mothers how to take care of their children after the surgery.

We all played with the kids after! :D

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Waiting time! This was my favorite group of kids! They were so loud and noisy – but not the annoying kind. They were just so anxious and excited that they’re finally getting their surgery! It’s recommended by doctors to have the surgery early on, but for the bigger kids, it’s better late than never.

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I got to observe an operation briefly. First time to visit an operation room too!

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Doctors trying their best to do consecutive surgeries. They were just in here for days, until all 150+ kids were done.

No, they weren’t paid to do this. KUDOS TO THEM!

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Operation Smile volunteers trying to help in any way they can.

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Little girl’s still numb from the surgery.

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Post-screening screening. On the day of the surgery, the kids have to be checked one last time, in case they caught a fever or flu the night before.

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That moment when the kids are so happy when you tell them that they’re finally getting their cleft lip/palate fixed! They smile with all their might even if not all of them can do it properly (yet). An inner smile is still a smile, and it shows through their eyes.

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Patiently waiting for their turn. Along the way, they all made friends and will most probably continue to be friends even after surgery!

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Gian and Lorie, responsible for making everything in this mission go smoothly! They also took care of everyone by providing the all the food and transportation that were needed.

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On my last day in Iloilo, I met a girl named Angela. We became friends and she called me Hannah Montana because I still had blonde hair then.

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The other friend I made was Aleiah. She was originally bumped off the list of 150, as her case was only very mild compared to the others. She and her mom accepted it quietly and went outside the hospital to look for a tricycle on the way home. While walking, they found a wallet on the floor with a lot of money. Turns out it belonged to one of the doctors in the hospital. She and her mom immediately went back inside to return it to the doctor, who, in gratitude, let Aleiah be an exception and granted her surgery.

Everyone is helping others and helping themselves. Faith in humanity restored. St. Aloysius Gonzaga said it best – “It is better to be the child of God than king of the whole world.” Forgive me for being incredibly Atenean here, but it really is true. It is better in so many ways. It is incredibly humbling and it gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment like no other.

Shortly after arriving back in Manila, I decided to set aside a certain amount of my savings to sponsor some kids their own surgeries. Being in the mission made me appreciate how lucky I am and how I am in a totally capable position to help others achieve their own dreams. I didn’t get to where I am alone. I had people help me along the way. I had people to help me fix my inner broken smile. People who gladly supported me even if I didn’t ask for their kindness. Now it’s my turn to help. Thanks Operation Smile for letting me experience all this. And to my mom for being there to support me and the patients as well.

Thanks to the power of social media, Bloggers United chose Operation Smile as their partner charity in one of their previous events. Aisa saw me tweeting about them some time ago and it sparked her curiosity and attention. Thanks to the BU team for helping give smiles to everyone (including me!) <3

You can help in your own little way. I’m not a doctor or anything (or anything serious, lol), but I’m set on raising awareness about this movement. You can donate, volunteer, or just tell a friend. Or you can think of other creative ways to help, like making a video!

Operation Smile also has care centers which serve as hubs offering year-round free surgeries for various deformities. I was able to visit last year, where I bumped into Shamcey Supsup who is also a Smile Ambassador. (Literally froze when I saw her. How can someone be so gorgeous and so nice <3)

Anyhow, I also participated in an international Operation Smile activity which I’ll also be sharing here soon. It was one of the reasons why I went to Singapore last year. :)

Follow Operation Smile on Facebook and Twitter.