Love Breaks Down Barriers

From the Field
Posted 2/27/2017

Editor's Note: The Philippines holds a special place in the history – and future – of our organization. It was there that Dr. Bill Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife Kathy, a nurse and clinical social worker, became inspired to create Operation Smile after witnessing firsthand the dire need for life-changing cleft surgeries while working an independent volunteer medical mission in 1982. Unable to provide surgery for so many children due to lack of resources, the Magees promised to return. We've been going back ever since. As we work into our 35th year, we're highlighting the birthplace of Operation Smile with this four-story series. This is the fourth story.

Remedios does the laundry while holding her 2-year-old daughter, Hazel, in her arms. She hangs wet clothes to dry on a clothesline between two small houses in their village.

This is Bantayan Island, Philippines – an island that was a holiday paradise for tourists before Typhoon Yolanda destroyed nearly all of the buildings here in November 2013. Although it’s been years since the storm’s passing, the island is still struggling to regain its former reputation as a tropical vacation destination.

The island, surrounded by beautiful white sand beaches, has a population of about 125,000 people, and many residents make their living by fishing and farming. In the wake of Typhoon Yolanda, irregular and low incomes have made daily life difficult for many.

Bhoniemae Alolod Malaga was born on Bantayan Island and knows its people well. She and her husband, Kristian, run the small nonprofit organization Abounding in Love, which provides transportation, lodging, healthy food, medical checkups and other prerequisites for impoverished cleft patients so they can receive free, safe surgeries provided by organizations like Operation Smile. 

Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

Hazel is one of these patients. She was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate.

Hazel’s father is a fisherman and Remedios stays at home to care for their large family. Sometimes, the mother of nine children makes extra money by doing laundry for neighbors. The family, which makes less than $6 per day, could never afford to pay for transportation to get to a hospital in Cebu City – a few hours away by ferry and bus – let alone the cleft surgeries their daughter so desperately needs.

“We wanted to cover the whole island to find these children, so we do everything we can do to locate them,” Bhoniemae says. “What we do is put posters in every municipality, and once they contact us, we personally conduct a home visit to those patients.

“We often find that these children suffer from malnutrition and other medical conditions, so Abounding in Love provides medication and proper nutrition to get them healthy enough for surgery.”

Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
Bhoniemae Alolod Malaga. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

Abounding In Love’s critical service to Filipino families like Hazel’s began in late 2011, when American businessman Arlen Van Os of Michigan first saw a photo of a distraught, elderly woman holding her grandson, Sam, who suffered from a cleft lip. Van Os learned that there were no plans for Sam to receive free surgery from another cleft organization, as the family did not have the money to afford the ferry and bus rides to the hospital in Cebu City from Bantayan Island where they lived.

Van Os had fallen in love with the country and its people after a business trip related to his Michigan-based industrial finishing company, Serviscreen. Alongside his son and daughter-in-law, who is Filipino, Van Os founded the web design company Avare in Cebu City about seven years ago and started to organize annual Christmas parties for children and families there.

It was after the 2011 Christmas party that Van Os learned of baby Sam’s plight, and he was moved to help. Van Os decided to pay for food, lodging and transportation for Sam and his family to reach the hospital in Cebu City where the free surgery was offered. He enlisted Bhoniemae, then a manager at Avare, to administer the goodwill project.

Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

Sam received surgery, and it wasn’t long before they found another patient, a teenager named Rosalie, who they decided to help in the same way.

“Word spread from cleft family to cleft family that some strange Americans and Filipinos were willing to help them go to the city for surgery, so we began donating more and more of our time to bringing families for surgery,” Van Os said. “We decided to call ourselves Abounding in Love, from a Bible passage describing a person who has so much love they cannot contain it.”

When Typhoon Yolanda struck Bantayan Island, Abounding in Love had assisted 21 children and their families. Tragically, most of their homes were destroyed or badly damaged in the storm. Abounding in Love sent in food and water before organizing the construction of 16 new homes for the affected families. Seven months after the rebuilding project concluded, Abounding in Love met and assisted the Operation Smile team at a Cebu City medical mission. 

Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

The experience gave the newfound charity a heightened sense of conviction and purpose.

“We decided to shut down our website business and devote our very small-but-capable staff entirely to the work of Abounding in Love,” Van Os said.

With Bhoniemae and Kristian running the small nonprofit, Abounding in Love hopes to even reach out further into the remote parts of the Philippines. As of the publication of this story, they have helped 333 children to receive more than 340 surgeries.

Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.

When Hazel and her mother arrive to the Operation Smile medical mission site at the University of Cebu Medical Center, there are more than 120 patients and families waiting for comprehensive health evaluations, which determine whether or not patients are healthy enough to receive surgery. Bhoniemae and Kristian are busy assisting the 56 families they brought from Bantayan Island and some smaller, nearby islands, answering all the questions they have. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve visited a big city.

“They come from rural areas, and many of them are afraid to come here – it is a big city, and they are not familiar with the surroundings,” Bhoniemae said. “They think they might be victims of scams and crime. Sometimes we must even convince them of our own goodwill. They have heard of illegal organ thefts and human trafficking, and are scared this could happen to their children.”

Operation Smile volunteer plastic surgeon Cherry Librojo of Manila explains the importance of local organizations such as Abounding in Love: “They are our eyes and ears on the ground. They know the culture and the sensitivities of the people, so they are more in tune with them. [Operation Smile medical volunteers] are strangers to them, even though I am Filipino myself. We come in and we perform our surgeries, but there is so much more to this. There are nuances that you need to know. They are the ones who are closing that gap. They’re very important. Because we may be the head, but they are our arms and legs.”

While Hazel is one of the 105 patients receiving surgery during the medical mission, another Abounding in Love child’s surgery is cancelled due to a high fever, making anesthesia too dangerous to deliver. The child’s mother comes to Bhoniemae, crying as she seeks her advice. This is the second time the child has been denied surgery. The first time, the baby was too young.

“Please don’t give up hope,” Bhoniemae said, comforting the young mother. “Operation Smile is coming back in a few months and you will have another possibility at surgery.”

Downstairs in the operating room, Remedios can finally see Hazel after her surgery. Tears of gratitude and joy are running down her cheeks as she lifts her baby up in her arms.

“I am so thankful,” Remedios said. “Without you, my child would never have received this surgery.”

Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt.