Six days of Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) wasn’t enough for student volunteer Matt Melgar.
“I'm getting teary-eyed because ISLC is really a great experience,” Matt told us on the final day of the conference, which took place this July in Lima, Peru. “It changed my life. It changed how I perceive things. I don't want this to end. … But then I know it's never the end. The learnings we have, the interactions we have, the friendships we made, and the memories we keep will continue throughout our lives.”
Then, in a nod to the conference theme, the 19-year-old from the Philippines said, “Our adventure starts now."
Matt was one of more than 250 participants who came together in Lima for Operation Smile’s 31st ISLC, an annual gathering that empowers young changemakers to make a difference in the lives of people born with cleft lip and cleft palate. Thanks to the generous support of ISLC 2023 Title Sponsor Align Technology, participants from 23 countries learned from inspiring speakers, put their skills into practice during workshops, and ultimately built friendships with peers who share their passion for service.
“I had joined Operation Smile because I wanted to help others, but Operation Smile is the one that's actually helping me, you know, in becoming a different version of myself, a better version of myself,” said Mannat Talwar of India. “And I have just learned so much. I have spoken to people from all across the world. I have made some lifelong friendships and learned about what they're doing in their own countries, how they're helping people. … I'm going to be setting up a club in my high school and doing whatever best I can to help the children in my country.”
Here’s a look at lessons learned from ISLC 2023 and how participants will make a difference for Operation Smile back home.
'I’m the key’
During Opening Ceremonies, participants heard from Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee, who encouraged the students to team up and dream big.
“Change never, ever, ever occurs from one person,” said Dr. Magee, who addressed the students virtually via Teams video. “It's an aggregate of all of us that have different skillsets and talents that we can put together.”
“Make that impact on this world,” Kathy said as she stood before the audience of high schoolers and undergraduate students. “It's got to have you. We know there are billions of people are out there who need you to give them a chance at life.”
“The key is that you are the future, and what you have the ability to do is incredible. … Don't underestimate a single bit of what you can do in life.”
Their message resonated among the participants.
“At the end of the day, if you have a problem, you are the key,” said Nisha Urusaro Muganga of Rwanda. “You are the one to get a solution, like you should be the one to solve a problem. Don’t wait for others. Don’t be like, ‘They're going to solve it. It's their problem.’ I can also solve it, like I'm the key.”
“I learned no matter what resources you have or the time you have available, just do what you can" because it still makes an impact, said Rudrani Goshsal, an ISLC team leader from Virginia, U.S.
Hailey Dore, a founding member of Operation Smile’s Cleft Connect Chat initiative, said ISLC is “giving me the confidence to do the things that I want to do and to branch out.”
Don’t judge a book by its cover
By sharing personal stories from his upbringing and performing as different characters, Dr. Mykee Fowlin helped the participants realize the beauty of acceptance through his unique mix of theater and therapy.
“We judge others way too quickly,” said Mykee told the audience, “and it prevents us from getting to truly know people for who they are.”
“'Do not judge a book by its cover’ is a phrase that we hear very often, but I experienced it firsthand here (at ISLC),” said 16-year-old Mannat, who lives in Delhi. “The most jolly and outgoing people have so much going on in their lives. It was unbelievable when I heard their stories, and I learned how to actually flip the pages of the book and read the story before judging a person. And that's the main learning that I will be taking home.”
For Matt from the Philippines, this idea of embracing others – and himself – was the biggest takeaway for the rising college freshman. He said his biggest lesson learned “would have to be ‘being yourself’ as cliche as it is, being able to interact with other people, with other sorts of life. We would initially judge a book by its cover. I saw this in (Mykee’s) talks, that we tend to judge a book by its cover, but we forgot to just turn the pages of the book to see the whole essence of the story.”
We all have scars – only some are visible on the outside
After about a year of Zoom calls, our Cleft Connect Chat squad was finally reunited in person – and they found themselves perched together on the ISLC stage.
Cleft Connect Chat is a monthly virtual gathering for teens who were born with cleft conditions. Representing five countries, these volunteers sat before the audience and took turns sharing their stories and experiences.
“It could feel like confidence can be broken or lifted with a touch of a button, but regardless of those disconnections, in the isolations that you may feel, the connection we all have here right now is through Operation Smile,” said Cleft Connect founding member and ISLC intern Emilee Carleton, who hails from Missouri, U.S.
“You could not know that they’re facing many challenges in their lives,” said Navalona Fanomezantsoa, a student volunteer from Madagascar who has supported Operation Smile surgical programs there. “... We should empower them, let them know that they are not alone and that we are here at their backs supporting them. … ISLC provided me tools to be more involved and to make others more involved in this situation.”
“The only thing that makes us different is that you see our scars, but I cannot see yours – although you still have them,” Laura Sofia Alvarez told the audience. A founding Cleft Connect Chat member and ISLC intern from Panama, Laura has been a longtime advocate for Operation Smile, even presenting before The Global Alliance for Surgical, Obstetric, Trauma and Anaesthesia Care (also known as the G4 Alliance).
“When Laura said we aren’t different just because ‘You can see my scars and I can’t see yours,’ that was really touching,” student volunteer Lily Namata told us after the Cleft Connect Chat panel. “Not everyone shows their struggles. But maybe someone isn’t physically challenged, but mentally, it can leave scars on a person.”
At the conclusion of the Cleft Connect Chat panel, Laura announced the beginning of a Chat for Spanish speakers – and inspired students in the audience to do the same. A student from India is preparing Cleft Connect for her country, and 15-year-old Lily is taking it on for Malawi.
“In Malawi, being born with a cleft condition is a stigma,” Lily said. “Sometimes these children go into hiding, they’re ashamed about how they look, they don’t receive education, and I think if this chat could be adapted for other parts of the world it could help people connect with one another and know that they are not alone.”
Reach kids early
Thanks to the leadership of longtime student volunteer and Cleft Connect Chat founding member Jackson Doane, ISLC participants left the conference with a call to action: Reach the kids in your community and teach them about cleft conditions.
“Our top priority as student volunteers needs to be educating young people,” Jackson told the audience. “Go out into your local elementary schools and youth groups and share with them cleft stories and encourage them to lead a life of empathy instead of judgment for others.”
Many Cleft Connect Chat members opened up and shared examples of times they were bullied or left out, and how it made them feel. Serving as mentors for children back home will help to nurture the kindness and understanding that will hopefully prevent anyone from having to experience such isolating treatment, Jackson said.
Nisha, the high schooler from Rwanda, said she was so moved by Cleft Connect that she’s going to immediately connect with primary-school kids and empower them to stand up for others.
“When the (Cleft Connect students) were giving their own experiences, it was so hard, it hit hard,” Nisha from Rwanda told us, tearing up. “It was so hard. It was like, ‘How can a person my age and younger than me feel that way?’ And I'm here in my own world not even knowing what's happening? It was too much. We need to help as many people as possible.”
Learn more about Operation Smile Student Programs and Cleft Connect Chat by visiting studentprograms.operationsmile.org and following @osstudpro on Instagram.