From Panel to Platform: The Catalyst

Global
Volunteer Story
Operation Smile student volunteers Jackson Doane, left, Kristi Neiswender, Mara Dempsey and Henry Baddour share their personal stories during Operation Smile's 2019 ISLC cleft panel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo: Carlos Rueda.
Operation Smile student volunteers Jackson Doane, left, Kristi Neiswender, Mara Dempsey and Henry Baddour share their personal stories during Operation Smile's 2019 ISLC cleft panel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo: Carlos Rueda.

Editor's note: This story is the final installment of a three-part series covering the formation, evolution and influence of the Operation Smile International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) cleft panel.

When she left ISLC 2017 in Rome, Flo Pun felt inspired by her newfound community – and obligated to advocate for those still in need of medical care to repair their untreated cleft conditions. 

“I was like, ‘I can’t just not do anything anymore,’” said Flo, who attended a 2019 Operation Smile medical mission in Guadalajara, Mexico. “There are so many people out there in the world who have this medical condition, and there are so many people who are not as fortunate as me.”

To date, the Flo has undergone seven surgeries to correct her unilateral cleft lip and cleft palate. 

Then, the question became how: How could she promote her anti-bullying platform and raise awareness for Operation Smile today? 

In this age of social media, Flo said that she needed to connect with people of huge influence to help amplify her message. 

To put her plan in motion, she reached out to her congressional representatives and pitched her work to their staff. The next person on her list? The mayor of San Francisco. 

Flo wanted to start a support group in San Francisco for people who were born with cleft conditions so they could receive the same gifts that ISLC gave her: a community and confidence.  

“Coming to ISLC, it was absolutely life-changing,” Flo said. “I felt from this experience, like meeting these people, having lunch with these people, going through this panel with them together as a team, I felt more confident about myself.” 

A strong community, a boost in confidence, a good cause: The formula inspired other members of the panel to take even more action for Operation Smile.  

“I believe the members of the cleft panel are our ISLC heroes,” said Brigette Magee Clifford, the co-founder of Student Programs and the daughter of Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee. “They can teach us more than we could ever teach them.” 

During Operation Smile's 2018 medical mission in Durgapur, India, Mara Dempsey shows a patient's mother a baby photo of herself before she received her first surgery to repair her cleft lip. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Mara Dempsey of Virginia has not just participated in all three panels, but she attended Operation Smile's 2018 medical mission to Durgapur, India.

Working with the youngest patients at the mission site, Mara taught them health care basics from nutrition and burn care to hand-washing and oral hygiene. 

In addition to all of the stickers, toys and posters she packed into her checked bag, Mara brought another special item: a baby photo of herself before she received surgery for her cleft lip.  

During the 2018 mission, Mara sat next to a mother cradling her sleeping 16-month-old daughter who was scheduled to receive care for her unilateral cleft lip. Wanting to help ease the mother’s worry, Mara pulled out her smartphone and showed the mother her baby photo.

As the mother looked between the photo and the scar on Mara’s lip, hope for her daughter began to grow.  

“It would give them peace of mind that I also had a cleft. Looking back at pictures from my mission, my eyes tear up,” Mara said. “You really bond and connect with the patients. I’m so fortunate that I have this connection with what Operation Smile does, and I love engaging with what they do. 

“I know I have a community, like a support community. People care, people know about the condition I was born with, and I feel that’s very important.”

Operation Smile student volunteers who were born with cleft conditions shared their perspectives at the 27th annual ISLC. From left: ISLC nurse and longtime student sponsor Kristi Neiswender and students Flo Pun, Nicholas English, Lucy Cotto, Mara Dempsey, Zoe Thornton-Reid and Cristina Ramirez. Photo: Kristy Walker.
Operation Smile student volunteers who were born with cleft conditions shared their perspectives at the 27th annual ISLC. From left: ISLC nurse and longtime student sponsor Kristi Neiswender and students Flo Pun, Nicholas English, Lucy Cotto, Mara Dempsey, Zoe Thornton-Reid and Cristina Ramirez. Photo: Kristy Walker.

The Operation Smile ISLC cleft panels don’t solely educate audience members. They empower them to be better advocates for children born with cleft conditions and to do more for Operation Smile. 

“I’ve never experienced having a cleft, but Operation Smile has given me the chance to understand and help,” said Lisanne Cosgrove of Ireland.

Student volunteers like Lisanne often bring home the lessons they learned during the panel in order to make a difference in their schools and communities by working to carry out fundraisers and awareness events to support Operation Smile and the work the organization achieves around the world. 

“I want to be a voice for change, and Operation Smile is helping me achieve that goal,” Mara said. 

“I feel brave when I tell my story. It’s a sensitive topic for me, and I feel vulnerable. I hope my story empowers those who hear it.” 

Mara Dempsey speaks to students during the cleft panel at Operation Smile's 2018 ISLC in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Kristy Walker.
Mara Dempsey speaks to students during the cleft panel at Operation Smile's 2018 ISLC in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Kristy Walker.