Editor's note: This story is the second of a three-part series covering the formation, evolution and influence of the Operation Smile International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) cleft panel.
Flo Pun never thought that attending ISLC 2017 in Rome, Italy, would lead to her not only meeting another person with a cleft condition, but standing side by side with nearly a dozen more students born with cleft to share their stories of adversity and triumph.
The panel at ISLC 2017 coalesced organically. It wasn’t even on the schedule when they ascended the stage, said Flo of San Francisco.
“It was very impromptu,” remembered Brigette Magee Clifford, the co-founder of Student Programs and the daughter of Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee.
“What I love about what happened in Rome is that they decided as a group to form a panel so their peers could ask any questions about their lives, living with a cleft. The questions and answers that followed evoked such emotion to a point where there was not a dry eye in the room. It was one of the most powerful sessions I’ve been a part of at ISLC.”
Championed by team leader Brady Hishmeh of New Jersey, the panel quickened as part of an awareness effort for cleft conditions.
During each ISLC, the participants are broken into teams captained by veteran Operation Smile student volunteers.
Team leaders have years of ISLC attendance and, for many, have first-hand experience of teaching the fundamentals of health care to children during Operation Smile medical missions around the world.
In 2015, Brady served as an Operation Smile student health care educator in Ethiopia and bonded with children as they prepared to receive surgery for their cleft lip or cleft palate.
Even before he became a team leader, Brady felt like ISLC was missing something.
Everyone was so focused on children living with cleft conditions in places that, especially for young teenagers, can feel like a completely different world.
“(The conference) discussed the existence of cleft as if it were a distant and far away event that had little effect on the attendees’ peers,” Brady said.
Really, they didn’t have to look to Ethiopia to hear this important perspective. During the conference, many participants could simply look to the person sitting next to them.
Brady knew this to be true: Earlier in the week, he teamed up with Brigette and, in one room, gathered nearly a dozen students and chaperones who were born with cleft.
They enjoyed lunch, got to know each other and many, for the first time, chatted with others who’ve been through what they have.
“Being in there and living this experience, it was just the most relatable thing I’ve ever been through,” Flo said about the gathering. “I tell my friends that I have a cleft condition, that I’ve been through multiple surgeries – they don’t really understand as much as these people I met in Italy.”
Brady knew that these perspectives needed to be heard, so he decided to help everyone experience the full picture.
He booted up PowerPoint, pulled together photos that illustrated his moments and milestones and asked the ISLC staff if he could share his story with all 500 participants at ISLC 2017.
“My request to speak on my personal life with a cleft lip was to enlighten the participants to the existence of cleft in their lives.” Brady said. “I really wanted people to realize just how lucky we all are to have been born in a developed country where we have access to safe and well-timed medical care.”
Poised and strong, Brady commanded the lectern, tallying how many surgeries he’s had, how he prevailed over every recovery, how much school he missed – and even how he couldn’t whistle until his most recent procedure.
He then welcomed the members of his new community to the front of the hall, conjured another microphone and asked them all to make their introduction and tell the world a little about themselves.
Lining the stage, members of the cleft panel had every pair of eyes was on them as they shared their stories of adversity and advocacy, inspiring the audience to stand up to bullies, embrace their differences and love themselves for exactly who they are.
This was the beginning of a panel that would continue to inspire and change the hearts of young Operation Smile student volunteers.