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Volunteer Story

Lessons Learned: The 26th Annual International Student Leadership Conference

Volunteer Story

Lessons Learned: The 26th Annual International Student Leadership Conference

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During the week of July 17 through July 24, 2017, Operation Smile Student Programs hosted the 26th annual International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC), which brought more than 500 college and high school students from 30-plus countries to the campus of Fraterna Domus just outside of Rome, Italy.

Operation Smile believes in the power of youth to create a more compassionate world, and its Student Programs team seeks to inspire the next generation of advocacy-minded leaders. From teaching health care at medical program sites to fundraising in their schools and communities, Operation Smile student volunteers are empowered and engaged advocates for children with cleft conditions. 

This year’s ISLC put this goal into action by providing students with the opportunity to listen to and engage with motivational speakers, participate in collaborative leadership training, and work on a service project designed to transform the lives of people living with cleft conditions. 

The following stories capture five of the most impactful lessons students learned at ISLC 2017.

The presentation of flags is an ISLC opening ceremonies tradition. Photo: Kristy Walker.

The Power of Knowledge … 

Students practice their hands-only cardiopulmonary (CPR) resuscitation skills during ISLC 2017. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Students are at the heart of a new initiative to train others in hands-only cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at Operation Smile medical program sites around the world. The goal is to teach the skill to 3,500 people in honor of the organization’s 35th anniversary.

Monique Russell, Operation Smile’s medical oversight coordinator, taught the skill to each of the 500-plus ISLC participants, and this knowledge is powerful: Performing chest compressions when someone is experiencing cardiac arrest means that their life could be saved, Monique told the students.  

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), about 90 percent of people who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die, but CPR can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival. The AHA also states that hands-only CPR has been shown to be as effective for cardiac arrest as conventional CPR outside of hospital settings.

Eighteen-year-old Paula Vallejos of Bolivia said she appreciated the training because “you know what you’re doing, and you’re making an impact.” 

Monique Russell, Operation Smile's medical oversight coordinator, teaches hands-only cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques to a group of ISLC 2017 students. Photo: Kristy Walker.

… And Compassion 

ISLC 2017 team leader Brady Hishmeh, an American student who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, shares his story with ISLC participants. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Being different is beautiful. Embrace it. It makes you who you are. 

A panel of participants born with cleft conditions offered this advice as part of a question-and-answer session during the conference. 

Team leader Brady Hishmeh kicked off this panel-driven conversation about living with cleft after sharing his story. Born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, Brady, a student at the University of Rhode Island in the United States, has had multiple surgeries and shared his life experiences with the group. 

“You’re exactly why we fight for this cause,” a participant said in a quick remark. 

Both his presentation and the dialogue that followed were powerful and moving – many participants had to dab the tears from their eyes. 

“We are a strong community, and we’re even stronger with you guys,” said Chris Williams, fundraising manager for Operation Smile U.K., who was also born with a cleft condition.

Dry eyes were scarce during an emotional question-and-answer session hosted by a panel of participants born with cleft conditions at ISLC 2017. Photo: Kristy Walker.

The Value of Service … 

Sofia Vittori, left, works on the speech therapy project that ISLC 2017 students made for the patients of Smile House, Operation Smile's only European care center in Milan. Photo: Kristy Walker.

All 500-plus participants came together to craft something special for the Smile House in Milan.  

They were tasked with making various games for young patients at the Smile House, which is Europe's first and only Operation Smile cleft care center. The games are not only fun for the children, but they help improve children’s speech. Each game, which have pictures of something that starts with a particular sound, will be used by speech pathologists at the center. 

“Now the children who come to Smile House and use these toys know that they have many brothers and sisters all around the world who have worked for them in order to give them the ability to make their language perfect,” said Angela Rezzonico, a speech pathologist at the center. “We will think of you every time we use these toys.”  

ISLC 2017 participant Sarah Douglas, center, works on a service project with her team. Photo: Kristy Walker.

... And Action

Operation Smile Student Programs alumnus Dr. Anthony Coppolino delivers a keynote speech during ISLC 2017. Photo: Kristy Walker.

The overarching theme of this conference was clear: Operation Smile student volunteers everywhere have the power to make a difference – and they have a responsibility to act.  

Santo Versace, Operation Smile Italia Executive Director and founder of the famous fashion house of the same name, said, “I have spent a lot of time in fashion, but never losing the importance of giving… I hope you stay with Operation Smile the rest of your life.” 

And that’s exactly what keynote speaker Wade Hooton did. The Student Programs alumnus told the audience that they were weird – in a good way! 

“Most people choose not to act,” he said. “Every one of us are going to have to choose to act or sit it out. You being here at this conference means that you chose to act. You’re weird.”

Fellow Student Programs alumnus Dr. Anthony Coppolino, now a thoracic surgeon, also took to the stage and issued a call to action: Children around the world who need help are relying on you, he said. A veteran of multiple ISLCs, he inspired the students with this reminder: “My journey started in the seats where all of you are.” 

A moving motivational speech by Italian race car driver Michela Cerruti really drove the point home: “Whatever you do, if you do it while smiling, it will always make it better.”

ISLC participants rose to their feet after Sabrina Ghiddi of Operation Smile Ghana finished her presentation on how she helps Ghanaians living with cleft conditions overcome the obstacles that keep them from receiving surgery.

“The patients are there, we just have to find them,” Sabrina, a native of Italy, said.

Sabrina and her husband are doing just that. They travel to remote places to find potential patients. Sabrina said many people with cleft conditions in Ghana are treated as if they’re cursed or evil-spirited, so they visit churches to help shift the perception of cleft from that of judgment to that of mercy.

Ana Paula of Paraguay said the presentation inspired her so much that she is interested in going to Ghana to help. Sabrina left her home country of Italy not just to help the children of Ghana, but to help remove the stigma of cleft in the country.

“She’s changing the world,” Ana said.

Sabrina Ghiddi of Operation Smile Ghana delivers a presentation about how she helps Ghanaians living with cleft overcome the obstacles that keep them from receiving surgery. Photo: Kristy Walker.

“The Change Starts Right Now”

The participants of ISLC 2017 pose for a selfie with Operation Smile Co-Founders Kathy Magee and Dr. Bill Magee after signing the Until We Heal pledge. Photo: Bethany Bogacki.

As members of the Until We Heal movement – Operation Smile’s campaign to make safe surgery more accessible around the world – ISLC participants know that there are millions of people with cleft conditions around the world who need their help. 

It's this awareness that drives these students to action – just like it did for Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee, who shared their story of the nonprofit’s origins with the students during ISLC.  

They traveled to the Philippines in 1982 as part of an independent medical program to help provide care for children with cleft conditions, and when they realized how many needed surgical care – too many to help during that trip – they knew they needed to do something about it.  

Together they founded Operation Smile, and since that first trip to the Philippines, they’ve helped change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, from patients and their families to medical professionals to volunteers.  

And it all happened because the Magees saw a need and took it upon themselves to be a part of the solution. 

And they're looking to students to do the same. 

“Think of the power you guys have in the palm of your hands,” Bill said. “… The change starts with you. And, more importantly, the change starts right now.”

Want to learn more about Student Programs? Visit, follow @osstudpro on Instagram and Twitter and follow @OpSmileStudPro on Snapchat.

ISLC 2017 participants enjoy one of the conference's keynote speeches. Photo: Kristy Walker.


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.