Bill Magee: Operation Smile
Giving Disadvantaged Children Worldwide a Reason to Smile.
Healthy Self-Esteem, a Process
As children, we look in the mirror and carefully inspect just who is looking back, usually with degrees of disappointment or harsh judgment, much of it unfair.
Out in public, while most people are friendly and complimentary, a handful of others will be unfriendly, mean-spirited and at times bullying. Maybe we have a bad haircut, an acne breakout, braces that look like steel girders, a head the size of Charlie Brown’s, or some other perceived imperfection.
Every time we hear a compliment, we feel good and are drawn to that person. When we are the target of derision, we withdraw and shrink a little. I certainly did. All of it, the good and the bad, is absorbed like a bone-dry sponge for future self-judgment.
Our self-esteem, the very fuel for all our potential achievements, is formed in these moments. It can be boosted with a smile and compliment or torn to shreds by mean-spirited ridicule.
Most of us learn to brush it off, put it in perspective and move on. We develop skills, personalities, friendships, and yes, even good looks. As our confidence grows, we come to love ourselves and go on to live healthy and satisfying lives.
But – what if we never even have a genuine chance? What if the person looking back from the mirror has a prominent birth defect – a serious deformity that, at the very least, will keep us mired in a life of low self-esteem and poor health?
And – what if the deformity is correctable by surgery, but there is neither the financial capability nor the technical knowhow available to change our fate?
Simply, it’s tragic.
Orofacial Cleft – A Serious & Widespread Problem
Orofacial cleft is a birth deformity where a gap in the mouth doesn’t properly close early in pregnancy. At birth, it can present as cleft lip or cleft palate (the roof of the mouth), or both. The disfigurement can range from moderate, affecting just one side of the lip, to severe, where the lip and palate on both sides of the mouth are affected.
The problem is much larger than we can ever imagine. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), shockingly, a child is born somewhere in the world with cleft every three minutes (1 child in every 500 to 750 births).
The cause can be a combination of circumstances including genetics, family history, pre-existing medical conditions, poor nutrition and exposure to harmful environmental substances.
Besides the obvious self-esteem issues, such as social isolation and bullying, other serious health concerns are connected to the condition. They include difficulty in feeding which can lead to malnutrition and possible starvation, problems with breathing, severe ear infections leading to a loss of hearing, and speech and language impairment.
Although the birth defect is seen across the globe, including the United States, the largest occurrences of uncorrected cleft are in remote, impoverished areas of developing countries in Asia and elsewhere.
Operation Smile’s Miracle Workers – the Magee’s
In 1982, plastic surgeon William Magee and his spouse Kathy, a social worker and nurse, traveled to the Philippines on a medical mission to provide free surgery and other support to poor children suffering from cleft.
What they found overwhelmed them with sadness and frustration. The degree of the problem was staggering – more children and their families were suffering than they had ever imagined. After helping as many as they could, and turning down many times more, they promised to return.
This time with a treasure trove of donations and a veritable army of angels: volunteer medical personnel in all specialties applied to the surgery, along with speech pathologists, dentists, orthodontists, child development professionals, social workers, program organizers, logistics teams, and other kind-hearted people instrumental to their grand vision.
Since 1982, Operation Smile has been answering prayers, saving lives, and giving children and their loved ones a reason to smile again. During their 36 years of operation, they have performed more than 220,000 free surgeries and an array of other related services in over 60 countries.
When the children come out of surgery and the bandages finally come off, the boost to their health, self-esteem and confidence is immense. The parents smile wide too, knowing their children finally have their first real chance at living healthy and normal lives
Striving to Meet the Never-Ending Need
Operation Smile’s mission became world-renowned in its first decade when Mother Teresa invited them to India to help treat deformed children, and they’ve never looked back.
The non-profit now has over 30 comprehensive care centers around the world providing free cleft lip and palate reconstruction surgery, and other services including dental care, speech pathology, awareness-raising programs and leadership training for both students and adults.
They also develop world care programs for the most severe cases, and organize local chapters and foundations designed to raise the critical funds needed and train local personnel for the years of aftercare that may be necessary.
Their objective is to ultimately create self-sufficiency in these countries insofar as caring for the medical needs of their citizens.
Once all the logistics of a mission are in place, a massive and comprehensive job, that’s when it’s game on. These angel-like medical workers and other volunteers travel to the poorest, most remote parts of the world in pursuit of those in need of their healing miracles.
After they’ve returned home from their missions of mercy, many thousands of children will be looking in mirrors and enjoying what they see for the first time in their lives. They will be learning to love themselves, which makes all else possible.
Volunteering – Life Changing Opportunities
Why do volunteers with Operation Smile devote a meaningful part of their lives to such angel work? As descibed on their website, operationsmile.org, nurse practitioner and volunteer, Gloria Inamagua, has been joining missions to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other countries since 2011. She says the following:
“What inspires me to continue volunteering with Operation Smile is the immense and unique love shared by my fellow volunteers, our patients and their families. I am so blessed to be a part of the miracles that take place on the medical missions. My life feels fulfilled every time I see the new smiles of children I have cared for, and the adults with a renewed sense of confidence after having their clefts repaired. These experiences encourage me to continue providing the best quality care possible to Operation Smile’s patients.”
What moves her the most is the love and courage she consistently sees in the children, wherever she travels. She says: “All children are special and have an immense capacity to love. They also have the right to be loved in return. They are little warriors who fight to survive no matter what.”
Finally, Inamagua discusses her source of inspiration, the children, and our responsibility to care for the them: “Children have the right to grow, play, study, and be happy. They are full of energy and positivity. I am continually inspired by children who overcome overwhelming obstacles. Personally, taking care of children is not just a responsibility, it is a privilege. Children are our future, so I feel that it is my job to protect and care for them in the way they deserve.”
The First Family of Volunteers
For the Magee family, Operation Smile has been a family volunteering affair from the beginning.
In a June 18, 2018 Distinction Magazine article written by Janine Latus, we learn that from an early age the five Magee children came along with their parents on several of the missions overseas. They not only made the trips but were trained to be helpful everywhere they could, including in the operating rooms.
When they would leave the missions for home, they would be crying and asking, “Who will take care of [the children] when we’re gone?”
“It’s that sense of responsibility, of being able to do good in the wider world,” Bill Magee told Latus, “that’s grounded our kids and taught them how blessed they are. It’s a situation that opened their eyes and hearts.”
Magee looks back with humility and gratitude when he says, “Operation Smile’s greatest gift to us was being able to ground our kids.”
The Magee children, and now their own children, have learned that there’s no better feeling of satisfaction and joy than to be in service to others, especially those who have very little in a relative sense. In that regard, they are lucky. Being in contribution to the suffering and forgotten is the highest state one can achieve on this earthly plain. Just ask Mother Teresa (in your prayers – I suspect she’ll answer in the affirmative).
Latus reports that the entire Magee clan are essentially acorns fallen not far from their family tree. Each are pursuing careers and volunteering either in medicine or humanitarian causes.
In 2017, they continued to join more than 3,400 volunteers from 54 nations who conducted 166 medical missions across 28 countries on behalf of Operation Smile. That’s a lot of smiles restored and opportunities for the volunteers to attain of that joyful state.
Charitable Giving – A Competitive Endeavor
The wealth divide across the globe has never been wider. The rich are getting ever richer and a vast population is being left out of the 21st century party, especially in remote, impoverished areas of developing countries. There are more problems to solve and more desperate creatures (i.e. people, animals, etc.) in need of support than ever before.
Because there is only so much philanthropy to go around, the competition for charitable donations is fierce.
When we view the photos and television commercials featuring the unfortunate children born with cleft, we feel heartbroken for them. That’s an intended reaction.
Maybe we write a check to the few angel-like organizations doing the hard work of repairing the deformities and saving lives. That’s wonderful. Maybe we join a lifetime giving program or even become volunteers. That’s even better because they desperately need our continuing support. Plus, it’s our chance to experience a sense of joy and satisfaction by our selfless act of contribution.
The world of charitable giving will never be without controversy, and this has also been true for Operation Smile.
For instance, a competing non-profit, Smile Train, was founded in 1999 by two former Operation Smile board members. The two charities are said to have been bitter rivals over the years. Because they essentially have the same mission, this has made fundraising more difficult and expensive for both non-profits.
In 2011, they announced an agreement to merge operations, only to cancel the merger three weeks later after Smile Train board members and large donors vehemently objected. A fundamental difference in how they operate their charities was cited as one of the contentions.
Generally, Smile Train uses local medical staffs and other volunteers to perform their cleft surgeries and follow-up services. Operation Smile brings medical teams and supplies in from overseas on two-week missions, while training locals to eventually take over the aftercare. Observers say there are benefits and drawbacks to both operating models.
In 2018, Forbes listed the top 100 U.S. charities, as it does every year. Smile Train was listed at #86, while Operation Smile wasn’t on the list. They are both doing God’s work on earth, no doubt, and the costs of fundraising and administration for these organizations can be high.
From several reports, the firms that specialize in fundraising are, by far, the largest expense. Reports say these solicitation companies often retain 50% or more of the donations they raise. In that regard, merging the two cleft surgery organizations seems to have been a smart move for all involved, but it was not to be.
A person considering making a charitable donation must consider all factors, of course, and more details can be had by contacting the charities directly and reading independent reports. Our intention herein is to provide information and highlight the good that these exceptional humanitarians are doing. We leave the controversy and criticisms to others.
In the case of Operation Smile, the bottom line is they are doing critically-needed work at an impressive scale and we applaud their extraordinary hearts and efforts.
Justly Earned Acknowledgements
The Magees and Operation Smile have earned many distinctions and awards over the years, including the first Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize awarded in 1996 to recognize outstanding contributions to alleviate human suffering.
Throughout the years, many high-profile people and celebrities have been moved to help the children of Operation Smile. They’ve given their time and money, and otherwise used their influence and support to bolster the organization.
Cindy McCain has been a notable volunteer since 2001, and she has gone above and beyond. As detailed in a 2008 article in the Virginian-Pilot (written by Austin Wright), McCain visited Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh in 1993 and took home a baby girl suffering with severe cleft palate. That baby girl is now Brigette McCain, “who is a beautiful, beautiful girl,” said McCain. “I think that’s a large part of why I do what I do for Operation Smile.”
McCain is not only a board member and fundraiser, but she has traveled on missions to Morocco, India and Vietnam, working long hours and taking on every possible role. “Whatever they need, I do.”
What a joyful state for a wonderful human being.
So Much Work Remains
Mixed with the feelings of joy in accomplishing so much, I’m certain, is a stark sense of frustration. For Operation Smile and all the great organizations doing humanitarian work around the planet, the desperate needs are endless and so much work remains to be done. So, their missions continue as they endeavor to ‘change lives one Smile at a time.’
In closing, volunteer nurse and angel, Gloria Inamagua, said it best:
“Mother Teresa once said, ‘We cannot do great things. We can only do little things with great love.’ I know there is still so much work to be done and many more children with cleft conditions around the world in need of care, but I have no doubt that Operation Smile will continue to provide the safest and highest quality care for children because of the love and passion that everyone affiliated with the organization has for helping children.”
Infants with facial deformities die at 15 times the rate of children with intact palates, largely because they have a hard time feeding.