Skip to main content

Volunteer Story Global

Celebrating the Year of Health and Care Workers: The Commitment of Operation Smile Medical Volunteers

Operation Smile Nicaragua's local medical volunteers perform surgery on a patient at the care center in Managua. The safe resumption of in-person care offers a glimpse into how medical programs will be conducted in the COVID-19 era, informing the organization on how to approach treating patients as conditions improve from country to country. Operation Smile photo.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures thanks to the front-line health workers who are risking their lives to reach waiting patients and families impacted by the pandemic. We're helping them 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.

Throughout 2020, our world fought against an obstacle that threatened the lives and safety of people worldwide.  

Throughout these times of uncertainty and fear, one factor has remained constant: the diligence of health care professionals on the front lines of a crisis that challenged health systems around the world. 

In recognition of their dedication to providing care amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated 2021 as the International Year of Health and Care Workers. 

As a global organization comprised of more than 6,000 medical volunteers, we’re honored to recognize them and their talents as instrumental to the success of delivering high-quality surgical and comprehensive care to people in need.

For nearly four decades, Operation Smile has relied on the unwavering devotion of health care professionals including surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, speech therapists, dentists and more to carry on our life-changing work.

Volunteer operating room nurse Redeat Wondemu during screening at a 2017 medical mission in Puebla, Mexico. For Red, being a part of Operation Smile goes beyond surgery. It’s a resolution for children born with cleft in low-resource countries to live happy and dignified lives. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

“The most rewarding part is that at the end of the day, I can go to sleep knowing I was able to help someone,” said volunteer nurse Redeat Wondemu. “For Operation Smile, it’s not just about making them comfortable. You’re completely changing their life, the way they grow up, and the way they're accepted in their community.

“Whatever the role is, we do it with our whole heart. And I think that’s beautiful.”

Since March 2020, we’ve depended on them more than ever before.

Without the commitment of volunteers like Redeat to improve the health and dignity of children born with cleft conditions, we wouldn’t be where we are today. 

Through these efforts, we’re proud to join the WHO in celebrating the world’s hardworking and passionate medical professionals.

Just as front-line doctors, nurses, technicians and other professionals continue to care for those in their communities, we will continue to reach and care for our patients despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.

In February 2021, Operation Smile Nicaragua carried out its first first local mission of the year, which delivered surgery to 10 patients who've been waiting for their new smiles. Operation Smile photo.

We’re continuing to work with local health leaders around the world to resume care safely at our centers and through medical missions. 

After the successful completion of several missions conducted by teams of local medical volunteers in 2020, we’ve outlined a schedule of medical programs planned to take place through June 2021.

Dr. Ruben Ayala, Operation Smile's chief medical officer, monitors a patient during a 2014 medical mission in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

“We have watched dismayed, how the number of children needing treatment has increased during the pandemic,” said Dr. Ruben Ayala, Operation Smile’s chief medical officer. “Understanding the enormity of the challenge, we have pulled together our knowledge, people and resources. Our leaders around the world have laid out country-specific plans for adapting, evolving and creating environments where care can still be delivered safely. 

Cautiously, but optimistically, we carry on the work where possible, sending a clear message to our patients that, in spite of the pandemic, we have not abandoned them, and we never will.”

Regardless of how the pandemic slowed our care delivery on missions, our local teams continue to serve a role in the fight against the pandemic, displaying their commitment to changing the lives of patients in their home countries who still need them. 

Marijose Kapunan and her husband, Rodney, have volunteered on more than 25 Operation Smile medical missions and are just two of thousands of our volunteers who are serving their communities during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Rodney Kapunan.

Marijose Kapunan and her husband, Rodney, have volunteered on more than 25 Operation Smile medical missions and are just two of thousands of our volunteers who are serving their communities during the pandemic.

“We nurses are in the front, center and back in the fight against this global pandemic,” said Marijose, an Operation Smile volunteer nurse and front-line health care worker in Jacksonville, Florida. “Nurses are valuable assets in formulating plans and processes to better manage the disease and prevent future outbreaks.”

Although medical missions were temporarily suspended in 2020, Operation Smile staff and volunteers around the world refused to stand aside in the face of adversity, devoting time and energy to providing care in any way they could. 

We were forced to reevaluate our normal practices of delivering care in order to push forward and seek out new and innovative opportunities to reach the patients who need us. 

A patient from Nicaragua receives a virtual follow-up speech therapy care consultation from Operation Smile volunteer speech therapist. Operation Smile photo.

Our organization began utilizing technology to provide patients with virtual speech therapy and psychosocial consultations, essential aspects of a patient’s comprehensive cleft care. 

It also provided virtual education and training opportunities for health workers in low- and middle-income countries so they could better fight the virus.

Volunteers and staff working in care centers throughout Latin America created an opportunity to come together and provide much-needed virtual care, ensuring that we kept our promise of caring for patients and their families amid lockdowns and country restrictions.

The lengths that our volunteers will go to serve patients underscores the caliber of people donating their skills and expertise to Operation Smile.

Longtime Operation Smile volunteer speech pathologist Milagros Rojas of Peru during a 2019 medical mission in Lima. She brings years of experience to our local Latin America teams. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

“I want to give thanks to those who made this opportunity possible,” said volunteer speech pathologist Milagros Rojas. “COVID was not a limitation, because anything is possible when things are done with humanity and infinite love.”

Today, Operation Smile volunteers continue to risk their own safety to serve their communities as the pandemic persists. 

We’re extremely proud to work with passionate, talented health and care workers who care deeply about the patients and families they serve, whether it’s halfway around the world or right there in their home communities.

Volunteer plastic surgeon Dr. David Orr, left, performs surgery as students observe during a 2014 surgical training rotation in Jimma, Ethiopia. Photo: Jorgen Hildebrandt.

We know that professionals in hospitals, care centers and clinics around the world will continue putting the health and safety of their patients first.

There couldn’t be a more fitting time to declare 2021 as the Year of Health and Care Workers. 

“Operation Smile changed my life,” said volunteer Jackeline Nuñez del Prado. “I thank God for giving me the opportunity to be part of the foundation that I love with my life. I’ll always be grateful for being part of the magic of creating smiles in the lives of patients and in my life as well.”

Join us as we celebrate 2021 as the Year of Health and Care Workers. The compassion and commitment of our volunteers are what enable us to continue keeping our promise to patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help children living with cleft conditions through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it's safe to resume our work.

Volunteer nurse Jackeline Nunez del Prado of Bolivia screening a patient during a March 2020 medical mission in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Jasmin Shah.


It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to provide life-changing surgery and a bright, beautiful new smile to a waiting child.