April 25, 2013
Erin Stieber, Associate Vice President, International Program Development
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On my last trip to Rwanda, I was privileged to visit a number of Operation Smile patients to say hello, to meet their friends and families, to be welcomed into their homes and communities, and to see how their lives had improved since surgery.
One adorable boy whose photos had captured my heart was Jean...
At age 8, just before his surgery, Jean’s big eyes and cleft lip reflected his shame, discomfort, and even desperation as he looked into the photographer’s lens during Operation Smile’s surgical program in Kigali. I had also seen a small photo of Jean taken after his surgery in 2010, a huge smile brightening his entire face as his eyes lit up.
This little boy’s life had clearly been changed by his surgery, and now, three years later, I was excited to meet him in person and learn more about him and his journey. I called the phone number that had been recorded for Jean during his earlier surgery as soon as I arrived in Kigali and wasn’t able to make a connection since the phone was switched off. I learned this was actually very common in Rwanda; many people in the country do not have electricity and only have their phone turned on a few hours a day to conserve the battery.
I continued to try over the course of the next day and finally got through! Jean’s father answered and, through a very patient translator, I explained that I was with Operation Smile and that I hoped to meet with Jean and his family to check in. Jean’s father was ecstatic, and excitedly told us that he would be honored to meet with us at his home.
I chartered a 4x4 vehicle the next day and travelled towards Jean’s home in a rural area of Rwanda. Jean and his family live quite a distance from the main road from Kigali, so we picked up his father and he guided us for several hours along a very rocky trail until we reached Jean’s village.
As we exited the vehicle and walked the last few yards I saw a large group of people waiting, and Jean proudly standing at the front, smiling broadly and waiting for us. As soon as I introduced myself and extended my hand for a quick shake, Jean opened up his arms and gave me a huge hug. He then proudly introduced me to his mother, grandmother, siblings, neighbors, and his many friends who had all come out to welcome me.
After the introductions Jean and his family led me into their house for a tour of their home. We sat down to chat about Jean’s progress and I learned he is a budding soccer star and a top student. His parents were extremely proud of their son. I learned that while before his surgery Jean had been very withdrawn and had been bullied by other children, now he was smart, athletic, outgoing, and always smiling.
Jean, his older brother and several other children then challenged me to a soccer game in front of Jean’s house – where we played with a well-worn ball kept intact by various battered pieces of twine and string. After losing the soccer match to my talented opponents, I gave hugs to Jean and his family, and prepared to say my goodbyes.
Prior to leaving, I asked Jean and his family it they would permit Jean to travel to Kigali for the launch of the Rwanda Smiles program later that week – I hoped that here he could tell his story and help us share the work we are doing in Rwanda to ensure that all children have the same opportunity to receive free surgery that he had received.
Jean and his family were thrilled to help, noting that this was one small thing they might be able to do to thank us for all we had done for them. Just before I left Jean’s mother gave him 2 fresh eggs from their chicken to give to me in thanks.
As he pressed them into my hand I marveled at what beautiful gifts I had received from Jean and his family; not just the eggs (which I had made into an omelet the next morning – they were delicious) but also the amazing opportunity to be welcomed into their home and to see how Jean had thrived after his surgery.
It is a day I will never forget.
Lear more about the groundbreaking initiative, Rwanda Smiles, here>>
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