Editor’s note: Every year, hundreds of Operation Smile student volunteers from around the world gather for the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC), an empowering week that combines cause and camaraderie. During the week of July 15 through July 21, 2019, Operation Smile Student Programs hosted the 28th annual ISLC, which brought more than 350 high school students from 21 countries around the world to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
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 missions to fundraising in their schools and communities, Operation Smile student volunteers are empowered and engaged advocates for children with cleft conditions.
The theme for this year’s ISLC was "Chaos: Discovering adventure in adversity." Chaos is a constant. There will always be chaos to face, there will always be challenges overcome. But there will always be Operation Smile. And this global family is here to help guide students as they chart their course. ISLC provides students with the opportunity to listen to and engage with motivational speakers, participate in collaborative leadership training and be a part of a service project designed to transform the lives of people who may never know their names.
The following stories capture the most impactful lessons students learned at ISLC 2019.
You Are the Future
For the budding nonprofit Operation Smile, the invitation to present a topic of choice at a medical mission conference was a welcome opportunity. It hadn’t been long since Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee took their first service trip to the Philippines in 1982, so they decided to share their experience in bringing high school volunteers to their mission.
The presentation didn’t go exactly as they expected, Kathy recounted.
“We were bombarded,” she said. “They got up and said, ‘Bringing students on these missions — are you crazy?’”
About 30 years later, Kathy was sharing this story before a different conference: Operation Smile's 28th annual ISLC. More than 350 student volunteers from 21 countries were in the audience, and just the weekend before, dozens of them had been trained to serve as health care educators during upcoming medical missions.
“We didn’t listen to them at all,” Kathy said. “They didn’t know what they were talking about. You’re our future, right, and we want you to be a part of this forever.”
The Magees’ message is the first of many lessons the students took away from ISLC 2019. If the two co-founders of an international nonprofit have all this confidence in them, then the students should have confidence in themselves, too.
Emily Yamashita of Germany said she was thankful to the Magees for providing an environment for students to take action.
“For me, it's a way to give back to people that may not have the same opportunities that I do and make them happier.”
“I think it’s amazing how many people have had a chance to touch lives through Operation Smile,” said Maryam Saleel of the United Arab Emirates, who will attend a medical mission in China this September. “I think it’s our big responsibility to get more kids involved.”
Share Your Story
There was not a dry eye in the room as they poured their hearts out on stage.
Rallied by Henry Baddour, founder of the Cleft Proud community, a handful of ISLC participants who were born with a cleft condition stood on stage before all of the ISLC participants, shared their experiences, answered questions from the audience and taught everyone how to be even better advocates for people born with cleft.
Henry told the audience, “I think a cleft means strength, pride, struggle, resilience and definitely chaos,” the latter being the theme of ISLC 2019. “Having a cleft shapes who you are, whether you like it or not. And I chose to embrace that. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.”
And their stories aren't just moving – they’re building a movement.
“I think it’s really important to have that sparkle, to make a really big movement,” said first-time participant Maria Victoria Salvador of Ecuador, whose cousin was born with a cleft condition. “And I think (this panel) has this courage inside them to make this movement.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Jackson Doane of Virginia said on stage. “Every person, regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, deserves a chance to smile, a chance to feel secure within their own bodies.”
The Power of Teamwork
For many participants of ISLC, building bonds with their like-minded, service-driven peers from around the world was an inspiration in itself.
“There’s so many nationalities with only one purpose — I love that,” said participant Lucy Tam of Guatemala. “All with just one mindset, to change people’s lives.”
While this was Lucy’s first ISLC, it definitely wasn’t her first experience with Operation Smile. Having served as a student volunteer for two years, Lucy said that connecting with patients and their families during medical missions led to her decision to study biomedical engineering when she graduates in October.
“I found out doing the smallest things could change whole families’ lives,” the 17-year-old said. “With Operation Smile, I found my purpose.”
Yannik Sitta of Paraguay said this shared purpose is the common thread that stitches together all of the participants from dozens of different countries.
"What I learned this week that will stick with me forever is that when it comes to working with people as a team, it doesn't matter where you're from, that it’s not an obstacle to achieve great goals for a bigger cause when you took the commitment to be here and be a fierce volunteer of Operation Smile,” Yannik said.
Participants witnessed such teamwork first-hand in the generous way companies supported Operation Smile and ISLC.
Winston-Salem-based clothing brand Hanes donated the conference T-shirts, and during the final party of the conference, Lay’s put smiles on everyone’s faces — literally. The company provided its specially designed smile bags that it's using to raise money for Operation Smile.
It’s time, she recalled her mother telling her. It’s time for him to make friends outside the family, time for him to go to school.
Her school — where she was new and still getting established and trying to make her own friends.
Brigette Magee Clifford was a teenager in high school when her parents, Operation Smile’s co-founders, welcomed the boy with a blue bandana into their home.
Behind Antero’s blue bandana was the severely infected skin of his mouth, cheeks and nose, which had been peeled open by bacteria. His skin was pale from having been shielded from sunlight for so long, making a stark, heartbreaking contrast.
The bacteria continued to eat away at Antero’s smile because his village in the Philippines lacked access to antibiotics. His condition was grave, but the Magee family refused to let him go without the care that he needed. They brought Antero to their home in Virginia so Bill could personally lead the procedures that would give Antero the life they knew he deserved.
Fast forward to the Magee family kitchen. During that time in her life, Brigette was around the same age as many of the 300-plus high school students in the audience, often finding herself sympathizing with the confusion and conflicted feelings that can come with being a teenager.
At this age, you have a choice: You can let what you perceive as chaos — confusion, conflict — have a negative impact on your life and others. Or, instead, you can have a positive impact on the lives of others by pivoting and approaching a chaotic situation from another perspective.
Of course, Brigette chose the latter. Together, they went to school, built up their community of friends and, in the process, built up their self-confidence.
At ISLC, Brigette rallied the audience of Operation Smile advocates to do the same. Engage with people who are different than you. Learn from them. Teach them some things, too.
“With change, there is always chaos,” Brigette said. “We believe that if you are able to embrace it and thrive in it, you will be more creative, you will be able to act with more spontaneity.”
Embrace Your Weakness
When speaker David Rendall told the ISLC audience that there’s another building next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, students and chaperones were so skeptical that they resorted to taking out their phones and checking for themselves.
Challenging the audience, David asked why anyone would want to take a picture of a crooked bell tower when there’s a perfect building with classically beautiful straight lines right next to it.
Simple: Because "What makes us weird also makes us wonderful," he said. “What makes us weak also makes us strong."
David's message resonated with many of the participants and inspired them to share their own stories of pivot and perspective.
“The fact that he mentioned how often we will meet with people that will tell us what not to do or to stop doing something because that will not get us anywhere in life, made me think a lot about my brother William, who has autism,” said Sean Doherty, a longtime student volunteer from New Jersey who attended a medical mission in Malawi.
“Everyone has sort of been telling him that he can do certain things and that his life has only a certain amount of potential, while me and my family see more in him. We just need to look at it from a different angle.”