Times were tough for Operation Smile Ghana program coordinator Lucy Apeajei when she was young.
By the time she was 10 years old, Lucy had to start working so she could help her single mother make ends meet. One day back then, she happened to walk by a woman conducting an empowerment campaign in her community for young girls like herself.
“I was fortunate to pass by when the person said, ‘Believe in yourself and go for anything you want to be,’” she said. The message had a deep and lasting impact on the young Lucy – so much so that she worked tirelessly to make it her life’s work to help fellow Ghanaians in need.
In 2010, she founded her own nonprofit organization, Just Care Foundation, “To empower women and children in rural communities to advocate for their economic, social and political rights.”
Through Just Care Foundation, she became involved with Operation Smile when she volunteered to lead an empowerment program at the patient shelter of the April 2015 Cape Coast medical mission. Within the following year, she was hired to become the full-time program coordinator of the newly-established Operation Smile Ghana Foundation.
We sat down with Lucy to learn more about her path in Ghanaian activism and how she’s helping Operation Smile to, in her words, “Complete the smile.”
Q: How did you become involved with Operation Smile?
A: “I used to work with (Operation Smile regional manager for western and southern Africa) Sabrina Ghiddi’s husband, Simone, who knew about what I did with Just Care Foundation, because on my weekends I was always traveling and doing things for it. He told me Sabrina was volunteering for Operation Smile and asked if I could help. They briefed me on what Operation Smile does, and they asked me, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well, after the final stitch, what else? After the stitch, what is life going to be like for that child? Does the child go home and continue to live on the street?’
“Of course, the surgeries are definitely life-changing, but having both the patients and the guardians at the mission is an opportunity to make a long-term impact on them – but how? So that’s where I knew I could help with Just Care Foundation – by running empowerment workshops to complete the smile.”
Q: Tell me more about the first mission on which you volunteered. It was the April 2015 mission in Cape Coast, correct?
A: “Yes! So on that particular mission, I teamed up with other organizations that came to teach the mamas. So I brought my empowerment program to Operation Smile. During surgery days, we gave the patients and families at the shelter advice on livelihoods. So, for example, if you were a farmer, we taught you more farming skills that you could take back to your village and actually improve on your productivity and make extra money to send your child to school or to put your child in a trade. It went amazingly well and it was tremendous. And up to now, we have patients and mamas who are using these skills. Some are beading on slippers, and this is their work today. To me, that is also a lifetime transformation. To me, that is a complete smile.”
Q: Are you still involved with Just Care Foundation, and what was your inspiration to start it?
A: “I am still the CEO, but I’m now more remotely involved. I have an amazing team of volunteers in place that run its programs. Because I am the founder, I know that nothing can detach me away from it completely, but I don’t run day-to-day affairs because I trust my team and they are doing amazingly well.
“I believe there is a girl out there somewhere who only needs a lesson. After she hears a message of empowerment, her life will be transformed as mine was. So at Just Care Foundation, we empower adolescent girls from the streets and the rural areas to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. I believe that if you lift up one girl and empower that lady to do something for herself that she can pull her entire family out of poverty. Until that happens, the cycle of poverty continues. And this work can be done by just one girl. So I started with one girl; now I’ve had five girls become nurses and, to me, it’s amazing.”
Q: How did you become the full-time program coordinator for Operation Smile Ghana and what does it take to do the job?
A: “So in early 2016, Sabrina told me that Operation Smile Ghana needed a program coordinator, and after seeing how I organized my workshop and how everything went very smoothly with the hundreds of people at the patient shelter, they thought I would be the best person for the job. My first mission was in Ho in March 2016, and it was marvelous. We still make sure that educational and empowerment programs are incorporated at the patient shelters, and Clement (Ofosuhemeng, Operation Smile Ghana’s patient coordinator) does a wonderful job of coordinating that. I was program coordinator for three missions, and my first mission as lead program coordinator was here (at Eastern Regional Hospital) in Koforidua in November 201,7 and I just did our first local mission (also in Koforidua in January 2018).
“As lead program coordinator, you don’t just lead the volunteers. I have to make sure that everything about the mission works and that all of the logistics it takes to run it come together. So before our mission, I go onsite and look for a patient shelter location and a hospital. Then, after that, I make sure that the patients will have everything they need at the shelter. Then, when it’s time for the mission, I make sure the volunteers are all taken care of, that the hospital is ready for them and that things run smoothly overall.”
Q: What are you most proud of having conducted Operation Smile Ghana’s first local mission?
A: “I’m so proud of this team – Sabrina, Clement, the three of us – coordinating everything together to make it very successful. I’m proud of our volunteers, the local volunteers, for stepping onto this stage and making the mission safe and successful. I’m proud that the hospital was good and that everything went perfectly if you look at the pieces all together. All of the patients were safe; we didn’t have any serious incidents nor any serious emergency, so I’m also proud of that. Also, through our training and education programs, we have empowered our volunteers to reach higher standards so they are better able to provide to any patient they encounter, so that is also a great achievement.”
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: “I want to say a big thank you to my colleagues Sabrina and Clement for all of the support that they have given to make this mission possible, and all of the people who sponsor us both locally and internationally. Most importantly, thanks to the volunteers for the passion and commitment that they give to all of Operation Smile’s programs. And it wouldn't have ever happened without the co-founders of Operation Smile, so we say thank you to Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee. We thank everyone that makes our programs in Ghana possible! And lastly, to the medical professionals of Ghana, I entreat you to help us change lives while improving your skills by volunteering with Operation Smile Ghana!”