Meet Gustavo

Young Boy plays with a toy truck after having surgeryPeople have asked what traveling with Operation Smile has been like. The best way I’ve found to explain the impact it has on my life is to share the impact that Operation Smile has had on the lives of a few of the people they serve.

Meet Gustavo. He’s a happy, lovable, eleven year old. He loves hot wheel cars and temporary tattoos. He’s a rock star at doing puzzles and don’t even think you can get the soccer ball past him. He was also born with a cleft palate making his speech almost impossible to understand. And unlike a child in a more affluent family, it has gone untreated.

Gustavo and his grandfather had traveled a long, long way to the hospital, hoping that of the hundreds of children who also made the trek, Gustavo might be selected for surgery.* His grandfather told me Gustavo had recently proclaimed that he would no longer go to school. Never, ever, ever–unless he could be “fixed.” The other kids were mean to him and quite simply he had had enough.

Perhaps Gustavo’s decision to drop out of school is what motivated grandpa to make the trip. Whatever it took I am thankful. That it took this long, please do not judge. Situations are never as simple as they seem. People living without means, have challenges we can’t even imagine. I simply applaud the courage of both the grandpa and the child to put their faith and hope in the hands of our medical team.

Meet Tony. The man who could not stop smiling. His obvious joy, that he would be one of the few adults the team would manage to squeeze into the crowded surgery schedule, could be seen on his beaming face. The fact that his smile was distorted by a bilateral cleft lip made it no less beautiful.

Just days later as Tony lay in Recovery, his first request as he awoke from anesthesia was that his girlfriend be brought back to see him, to see his new smile. His second request was that someone snap a picture when she arrived. Not such an unusual request. What made it noteworthy was the reason behind Tony’s request. He’d brought an engagement ring with him to the hospital that day. He wanted to be sure to have a photo taken as he asked his girlfriend to marry him. They had long ago accepted the fact that they could never marry because of his facial deformity. On this day, because of Operation Smile, all of that changed.

Meet Eliana. Four years old and back for a second surgery with Operation Smile. We bonded during the days before her surgery. She became my special little friend, my little shadow. I carried her trembling into the O.R. I will never forget the awe inducing responsibility of taking her from the arms of her crying mama. For those brief minutes until the anesthetic lulled her to sleep, I was so thankful I could be there to comfort her.

And now more than a year later, my heart fills with joy every time her name appears in my email inbox. My little Paraguayan pen-pal keeps me up to date about birthdays, school, her sister and her kitten.

Meet Jesus and his Daddy. When Daddy was told Jesus had been selected to have his cleft lip repaired, he could not stop smiling. Smiling, crying, laughing, jumping, and hugging his sweet little boy…and anyone else within reach. And, he could not just walk away without thanking every single person involved. I watched Daddy as he thanked everyone he could, walking the corridor of the hospital with Jesus.

And then he waited. The two of them waited, for hours, by the bus that would take our team back to the hotel at the end of the long day. That evening, as we got on the bus Daddy was there to say thank you to each of us individually. The whole bus was crying happy tears. We were thankful for what he had given us.

Meet Mary. Mary is 21 and has both a cleft lip and a cleft palate. She came to the hospital hoping to have her lip repaired—she just wants to look like other pretty young women. The doctors explained to her that repairing the palate is more important for her health. She explained that repairing the lip is more important for the health of her happiness. In the end Mary agreed to the palate surgery. But better yet, in the end her surgeon managed to do both.

:) :) :) :) :)

I feel so lucky, so overflowing with gratitude, that Operation Smile has made these experiences a part of my life’s journey. I have no medical training. None, as in I’m the one likely to faint just visiting a friend at the hospital. So why does a preschool teacher get to go? I tag along on these medical missions as the Professional Goofball/Playologist and Lovey-Dovey Parent Liaison (OK, I admit I made those titles up–could you tell?). Little did I know when I offered to help raise funds for Operation Smile through Spontaneous Smiley, that I would end up traveling the world wearing a clown nose, doing the Hokey-Pokey, and making balloon animals.

Two young boys.My real role is as the chaperone for a couple of exceptional high school students who have worked for years helping Operation Smile. These young adults have held bake sales, car washes, and all manner of fundraisers. Coming on a mission is a lovely way for Operation Smile to thank them but also to take them to the next step—they’ve talked the talk, now it’s time to walk the walk by working in a hospital. Additionally they have been trained in making water potable, diarrhea prevention, oral rehydration, burn prevention & care, dental hygiene, and hand washing. Through out the long days at the hospital besides playing with all the kids and providing hugs to waiting parents, the Student Volunteers teach these life saving health modules again and again.

Clearly that’s important work, but what I observed the students doing that simply took my breath away, was their being loving, nurturing and generous of spirit. I wish anyone who thinks teenagers are pains in the neck, could have seen what I was lucky enough to witness. There’s nothing quite so dear as a 17 year old boy (think baggy pants, hair gel and iPhone) tenderly holding the hand of his 4 year old buddy as they walk into the Operating Room or that same young man putting his arms around a sobbing mama as he tells her surgery is all done, it went well, come see your baby’s beautiful new smile. If that’s not enough to make you tear up, add to that the fact that the teen’s face is covered in stickers and he’s wearing glasses made out of pink neon pipe cleaners. I was so proud of my two boys; they’d learned that being “cool” can be achieved in ways never before imagined.

100_6288Here I was getting ready for my next mission. In June I was off to the Philippines. My staging area, a.k.a. my couch, was covered in art supplies and toys. Some of my former students, now big elementary school kids, enlisted their classmates to prep ziplock bag art kits to give to every child. My daughter made Spontaneous Smiley name tags for all 150 members of the team. Amazingly I had room for it all; I did however have to pull out most of my clothes that I’d planned to take! Actually, I didn’t manage to bring it all. I wasn’t able to take all 25 pounds of Hot Wheels a stranger mailed to me for the trip! But that just means I’m that much more ready for next mission.

BTW, Gustavo got his surgery and the children of the Philippines were just as wonderful as those I met in Paraguay. Where will I go next? Whom will I meet there!

Smile. Be happy. Be happier!
Ruth Kaiser, the Smiley Lady of Spontaneous Smiley
P.S.: If you’d like to help, I’d like that too. I think there is no other charity where dollars translate so clearly into lives forever changed. It only cost $240 to fund a surgery. If you’ve got that to give, you will know that:

• A child who now struggles to speak, will be able to talk with ease for the first time – and laugh and sing and whistle and make a racket.
• A child who now struggles to eat, will have a world of new foods to taste and enjoy – and can be a picky eater not because they can’t eat but because they’re a kid.
• A child who now hides their faces in public, will proudly join their community – many will finally be able to attend school.
• Mommies and Daddies whose hearts have been very, very sad for a very long time, will feel a gratitude for your generosity that can not be put into words

100_3337Any amount helps. Every donation helps add to the joy of a new smile. Need a little motivation to help you part with that 20 dollars in your wallet? Check out this telling photo from screening day when whole families come to the hospital. Can you tell which of these children are siblings and which two are patients? Just days later, the two girls hiding their faces got new smiles

* A note about why some children are turned away. Many children with clefts also experience other medical issues. A child may not be well enough or strong enough for surgery. But all who come are assessed. Their issues, be it infection, anemia, underweight or in need of dental and orthopedic care, are evaluated and a course of action set into place. These children will be at the top of the list the next time Operation Smile comes to their area.

Ruth Kaiser

Ruth Kaiser is a preschool teacher, TED Talk speaker, children's author, AND the creator of the popular online art project where thousands of people find, photograph and share Smiley Faces they find in everyday objects.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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