See How Two Women Are Empowering Others Amid the Pandemic

Global
Volunteer Story
Apple cider donate sale coordinated by student volunteers dedicated to Operation Smile and its mission. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.
Apple cider donate sale coordinated by student volunteers dedicated to Operation Smile and its mission. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We're helping front-line health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

As a global pandemic brought the entire world to a standstill, two determined women were inspired to act. 

Through all the adversity in New York City, once the epicenter of the pandemic, an Operation Smile club at Manhattan College pursued and found a way to support patients in need of cleft surgery. 

In-person events became virtual, but the goal was still the same: raise awareness and gain funds so children born with cleft conditions around the world would receive life-changing, comprehensive care.

Since the beginning of the fall 2020 semester, the club, which is led by biology major and chemistry minor student Shayla Gramajo and associate professor Dr. Grishma Shah, has raised enough money to allow three patients to receive free reconstructive surgery. 

Shayla, now a junior at Manhattan College, was a freshman when she assumed leadership of the Operation Smile club. 

But she expressed how she always had the desire and passion to be involved with the organization since high school. 

Operation Smile and its mission to provide safe surgery to people where it’s needed most is something close to Shayla’s heart. 

Her aunt in Guatemala was born with a cleft condition. 

Shayla Gramajo, Operation Smile student volunteer and Manhattan College student. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.
Shayla Gramajo, Operation Smile student volunteer and Manhattan College student. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.

As one of fifteen children, Shayla's aunt continued to do her part to help provide for the family while also dealing with the harassment that she endured because of her cleft condition.

Despite all of the hardships that their family experienced, the siblings worked together to fund the cost of a cleft repair surgery. 

Several years after the procedure, Shayla has seen her aunt begin to lead a healthy, happy life without worrying about judgmental looks from strangers. 

“Seeing her recovery process and her confidence grow through her smile was so rewarding,” Shayla explained. “The procedure directly impacted my aunt and my family, as well as sparked my interest in Operation Smile and my personal desire to pursue a profession in medicine.”

Despite challenges from the pandemic, Manhattan’s Operation Smile club hosted six events in the fall of 2020, including a do-it-your-way 5k, raising funds to help our patients receive life-changing care. 

Shayla and more student volunteers raise awareness and support for Operation Smile through fundraising efforts like Beloved Bracelet. Funds were sent to help families in Panama. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.
Shayla and more student volunteers raise awareness and support for Operation Smile through fundraising efforts like Beloved Bracelet. Funds were sent to help families in Panama. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.

“Our main goal for the fall semester, as a fairly new club, was to raise as much awareness as possible, which we have successfully achieved!” Shayla explained. “This included hosting speaker events, becoming an official club under Manhattan College, and engaging club members about the importance of Operation Smile.”

Although international medical missions were paused in 2020, the need to help patients with cleft conditions still existed. 

Our team began utilizing technology to provide patients with virtual speech therapy and psychosocial consultations.

Donations like the ones raised by Shayla and the Operation Smile club at Manhattan College not only helped patients receive surgery, but they also helped provide children with virtual services and nutritional care and helped raise awareness and understanding of cleft lip and cleft palate conditions.

Not only is Shayla helping to raise money for patients with cleft conditions during the pandemic, but she’s also taking the skills she’s learned in the classroom to directly provide support as a contact tracer for United Healthcare Group and a certified nurse aide at a Westchester County nursing home. 

Shayla credits a lot of her success with Operation Smile to Dr. Grishma Shah, an associate professor of management and marketing at Manhattan College. 

Dr. Grishma Shah, Operation Smile student programs alumna, alumni chair for Operation Smile Student Programs for the northeast and club advisor at Manhattan College. Photo courtesy of Grishma Shah.
Dr. Grishma Shah, Operation Smile student programs alumna, alumni chair for Operation Smile Student Programs for the northeast and club advisor at Manhattan College. Photo courtesy of Grishma Shah.

“Shayla is a first-generation college student,” Grishma said. “Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala, and Shayla has seized not only the opportunities given to her but became an asset to the college and wider community.”

Grishma is a former teacher of Shayla’s who also has a long history of volunteer work with Operation Smile.

As one of Operation Smile Student Programs most esteemed alumna, Girshma has been involved with the organization since high school and has attended eight missions.  

Initially, she joined the Operation Smile club in high school because she thought it sounded interesting.

But the club advisor at the time made sure Grishma was active in the club and encouraged her to attend an Operation Smile leadership conference. 

“I was hooked after that,” she said. 

Operation Smile student volunteers raise awareness and support for the organization through fundraising efforts like Beloved Bracelet. Funds were sent to help families in Panama. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.
Operation Smile student volunteers raise awareness and support for the organization through fundraising efforts like Beloved Bracelet. Funds were sent to help families in Panama. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.

Currently, Grishma is the alumni chair for Operation Smile Student Programs for the northeast region and is in her fifth year as club advisor at Manhattan College. 

The professor attended her first medical mission to Honduras as a senior in high school. She spent 10 days in the country and particularly bonded with one patient and her mother. 

“She received surgery and we became good pals,” Grishma recalled. “Two years later, when I went back again to the same site, the little girl and her mom were waiting there outside the bus with a picture of me and the girl. They had no idea I would be there, but they came and just waited – we had the happiest of reunions. I was so touched that little girl kept our pictures and it meant so much to her.”

Eventually, Grishma started the Operation Smile club at Rutgers University and has been involved with it for nearly 25 years – even interning at Operation Smile Global Headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

Grishma is proud that students like Shayla are continuing to give back to the organization that's been close to her heart for so many years. 

When asked what she hopes others would gain as part of Manhattan College’s Operation Smile club, Grishma replied, “I want them to see that there is a bigger world than them and that they can play an active role in making it the kind, fair and just place we so desperately need.

“The change starts with us, and this is one small way to be a part of that good change.”

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it's safe to resume our work.

Student volunteer pose for a picture during the Operation Smile 5K run Shayla and other students organized to raise awareness and funds for children living with cleft conditions. Photo courtesy of Shayla Gramajo.