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From Panel to Platform: The Turning Point

From Panel to Platform: The Turning Point

During Operation Smile's 2017 International Student Leadership Conference in Rome, students who were born with cleft conditions came together to share personal stories of struggle and inspiration during the cleft panel. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Editor's note: This story is the first of a three-part series covering the formation, evolution and influence of the Operation Smile International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) cleft panel.

Flo Pun said that her life changed during the 2017 ISLC in Rome – and it all started with a balloon. 

Speakers at the conference tasked Flo and her fellow participants with blowing up a balloon, which would later be used as a metaphor for life, leadership and overcoming challenges.  

But for Flo, this already presented a challenge of its own. Born with a cleft lip and palate – conditions that required multiple surgeries just to make eating and breathing easier – Flo found it extremely difficult to blow air into the balloon. 

As 500 people in the auditorium bobbed with each puff of air – the audience speckled with blobs of color – Flo looked around and noticed another girl nearby whose balloon was also underinflated. 

“I looked at her, and I knew she had a cleft lip,” Flo remembered. “I was like, ‘Hey, same with me. I can’t blow this up either.’”

The girl with whom Flo shared that beautiful moment was Sarah Douglas of Ireland. Sarah was the first person born with a cleft who Flo had ever met. 

During ISLC 2017, the student from San Francisco would come to meet nearly a dozen more friends who were born with the same condition. 

And this community of young student volunteers who had just formed connections with each other soon found themselves standing together in front of a supportive audience of 500 people from more than 30 countries.

Mara Dempsey, left, Flo Pun, Lucy Cotto and Sarah Douglas support each other during the ISLC 2017 cleft panel. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Bravely, members of this newly formed panel took to the stage and shared their stories of resilience.

Not only did they spread awareness of cleft by talking about the struggles they faced and continue to face every day, but they inspired the audience by rallying against bullying and teaching everyone how to be more compassionate advocates for people born with cleft conditions. 

“A huge turning point in my life is just meeting these other people with the same medical condition I have,” Flo said. “And, actually having the guts to be exposed and talk about my experience with 500 people in one room, in front of everybody, with the other people on the panel. It's something that I don’t think I would have ever imagined doing if I didn’t come to ISLC.”

This emotional exchange of personal stories and lessons learned has become an ISLC tradition; the Operation Smile Student Programs’ cleft panel returned for its second year at ISLC 2018 in Seattle and will continue for years to come. It will also continue to leave a deep impact on Operation Smile’s youngest volunteers and guide how they engage with and stand up for people affected by cleft conditions.

“I had a 16-year-old boy come up to me right after the first panel with wet eyes,” said Brigette Magee Clifford, founder of Student Programs and the daughter of Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee. “He said, ‘Mrs. Brigette, now I know why you ask us to work hard to help these children all over the world.’ 

“I felt like every student who walked out from that session had a new perspective and were inspired by their peers to work even harder to be an advocate for children born with differences. It was truly priceless.” 

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.