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Volunteer Story Global

Finding Her Purpose

Volunteer Story Global

Finding Her Purpose

Laura Alvarez’s life was changed by Operation Smile. But not because she was a patient of the organization. 

Laura Speaks During ISLC

Operation Smile treats patients with cleft conditions all over the world. Some patients are unable to eat or communicate properly and are bullied by peers for looking “different.” A surgery that takes as little as 45 minutes to treat cleft conditions can be utterly life-changing. But Operation Smile changes lives in more ways than surgery alone.

Operation Smile has an extensive Student Programs team filled with incredible student volunteers like Panamá native Laura Alvarez, who has had some life-changing experiences of her own through Operation Smile.

Like Operation Smile patients, Laura was also born with a cleft condition. She grew up in Panamá City, Panamá, an area where Operation Smile has been providing free cleft care to locals with limited access to treatment for the past 32 years. Unlike Operation Smile patients, Laura was lucky enough to be born into a family that had the means to get her the proper care and treatment for her cleft condition. Despite her fortunate beginnings, Laura still struggled with the challenges of living with a cleft condition.

“After I turned 10 years old, some classmates pointed out how I spoke strangely and looked different from them. ‘You look like a pig,’ they said. These cruel comments made me feel ashamed of myself,” Laura reflected. “I remember that day. I came home from school with tears rolling down my cheeks, and I went directly to my parents’ room. I asked them, ‘Why don’t I look like the rest of the girls?’ They told me that I was born with a cleft lip and palate. Even though they affirmed that I was unique, all I could wish for at that moment was to be physically normal, like the other girls. This was my first life-changing experience. Thanks to that day I feel I am much stronger, and my mindset has changed ever since.”

Laura Smiles with Faryn

Operation Smile has had a presence in Panamá since 1991 and currently provides care in six cities throughout the country. In that time, Operation Smile has welcomed more than 120 Panamanian medical professionals and provided surgical and comprehensive care to more than 3,100 children with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial differences. With such a strong presence in Panamá, it is no wonder that Laura got acquainted with the global nonprofit and was eager to begin volunteering her time to help others afflicted with cleft conditions in her community and in vulnerable communities around the world.

“I have been involved with Operation Smile for four years now,” said Laura. “The first events I did were bake sales and attending school meetings where our goal was to educate people on cleft conditions, the mission of Operation Smile and to fundraise for more surgeries.” After the first Operation Smile meeting at her school, there was no stopping Laura’s momentum. She soon started traveling internationally with the organization attending Latinoamérica en Acción (LEA) conferences, Operation Smile’s annual student conference for Spanish speakers, that gathers students from 13 countries in Latin America. At the LEA in 2022, Laura had the honor of sharing her story of living with a cleft condition for the first time and recalls the moment she spoke to that audience as life-changing.

“After my speech, someone asked me if I had the chance to decide on being born with a cleft or without a cleft, what would I choose? And I would always choose being born with a cleft because without it I wouldn’t be unique and the strong woman I am today,” said Laura.

In the four years Laura has been volunteering with Operation Smile, she has attended three LEA conferences and was even a guest speaker as a cleft youth ambassador on behalf of Operation Smile at the G4 ALLIANCE which took place in May 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland. She attended Operations Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in Miami, Florida in July 2022, acting as a student leader and guest speaker. Not only has Laura lent her voice to the attendees of these international conferences, but she’s also been a positive influence on children with cleft conditions through her involvement with Cleft Connect, a virtual outlet for teens who were born with a cleft condition to build friendships, hear from guest speakers and engage in conversation and reflection.

“Operation Smile has given me much more than surgery can provide; it has given me confidence and a platform to advocate for those whose greatest challenge in life began the day they were born with a cleft, just like me,” said Laura. “Operation Smile has given me the opportunity to travel to Switzerland, Miami, Virginia, Utah and New York to speak in front of thousands of people and tell them about this little girl who was born with a blessing, rather than a defect. And this way, I started raising awareness not only for cleft patients but also for everyone who ever feels as though they are not enough, because self-confidence and resilience are vital to fulfilling your heart, and furthermore, reaching your biggest goals in life.”

Laura’s most impactful experience with Operation Smile occurred this spring when she lived in Virginia Beach for three months, serving as an ISLC intern at Operation Smile headquarters. During her time in Virginia Beach, Laura told her story at more than 30 local schools alongside Brigette Magee Clifford, AVP of Student Programs, and helped promote the Operation Smile Final Mile event at the Shamrock Marathon.

There was one school presentation that stood out among the rest. Laura spoke in front of a class at Alanton Elementary School and was introduced to a young girl who opened her eyes to the substantial impact she was making on the cleft community.

“When we arrived the teachers told us there was a 10-year-old girl in the audience who was also born with cleft lip and palate, and the week before our presentation they showed a video of a patient of Operation Smile, and the girl felt uncomfortable, and she ran to the bathroom and started crying,” recalled Laura. “As soon as I saw the class, I noticed her sitting in the front row. Farryn was her name. Brigette oversaw educating the class on what was a cleft lip and a cleft palate, and what was the mission of Operation Smile, and I was in the back waiting for my turn to share my experience. I saw that Farryn was uncomfortable because she switched places with a girl in the back row, but as soon as I spoke, her eyes were shining and glued to me. When I finished my speech, she came running up to me and gave me the sweetest hug and looked right at me and told me I was the first person she had ever met with a cleft. At that moment, I knew Farryn would never again feel alone. My five-minute story changed how she looked at herself.  Now she felt like a hero. Operation Smile has helped me transform my biggest weakness into my greatest strength, and now I can be the mentor, a person that I never had in my younger life. Later, a day before the Shamrock, we invited her to a VIPP lunch at Operation Smile headquarters, where she met other kids her age living with cleft conditions, and I got the chance to get to know her more and meet her family.”

Laura Smiles with Faryn

Volunteering with a global nonprofit that has a wide-reaching impact has had a profound effect on Laura on a deeply personal level. Operation Smile has made Laura realize the power of helping others. Through these unique experiences, Laura has discovered that the true meaning of success is found in how many people one inspires along the way. 

“My experiences have helped me visualize what my purpose is, which is to provide strength to others and help Operation Smile keep growing. This also allows me to work towards the greatest version of myself,” Laura said.

As for the future, Laura is preparing to move to Valencia, Spain to attend college at CEU Cardinal Herrara University. She dreams of writing a book that tells her story and the story of thousands of fellow patients. Once she graduates, Laura plans to seek a job in a capacity that allows her to help people.

But Laura’s involvement with Operation Smile is far from over. In July 2023, Laura will attend the organization’s ISLC in Peru along with hundreds of other student volunteers traveling from all over the world. At the ISLC, Laura will help Operation Smile launch Cleft Connect Chat Latin America (LAC), which will bring the community and supportive spirit of Cleft Connect to all parts of Latin America.

“I am looking forward to launching Cleft Connect LAC at the ISLC, and I am extremely happy to reconnect with all the people that I haven’t seen in a year,” said Laura. “At the ISLC in Miami last year, I left with a lot of lifetime friendships, and I hope to meet new people in Peru this year. I am excited to have a different role from last year and be more part of the behind-the-scenes as an ISLC intern. I am also looking forward to learning about the keynote speakers and being a mentor to the team leaders.”

The ISLC is a time for determined young leaders from all walks of life to gather to work in service and learn how to become influential leaders in society. Laura is the embodiment of the saying,” you get out of it what you put in” and is an exemplary student volunteer. By empowering and educating others, Laura has developed an impressive sense of self at a young age and has inspired hundreds of kids to be energized and not discouraged by their adversities.

“Laura is just one example of thousands of students across the globe that will do anything to support Operation Smile and children living with cleft conditions,” said Brigette Magee Clifford. “By means of school-based clubs, community outreach, mini workshops, leadership conferences and opportunities to go out and work alongside us in the field, there are endless experiences we can offer around youth empowerment. Born with cleft lip and palate, Laura has a personal way of connecting with kids born with cleft and the personality to inspire them to serve as ambassadors of Operation Smile. Our students want to create impact and find ways to reach more children. We are lucky to have students like Laura as part of the organization.”

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