Like so many generous and compassionate Operation Smile donors, pediatric dentist Dr. Dane Hoang was incredibly moved as she watched our TV program hosted by Roma Downey back in 2006.
She didn’t know it at the time, but that show ended up having a profound influence on the course of her life over the next decade.
After learning that she could contribute her skills as a pediatric dentist to Operation Smile’s cause, Dane applied to become a medical volunteer. Since then, she’s served on 11 medical and dental missions. Most of her volunteer work has been focused in Hue, Vietnam, which is near where she was born and lived until her parents fled the country to immigrate to the United States in 1979.
But Dane didn’t stop there. Inspired to do more to support Operation Smile, she began raising funds around the Dallas area where she lives and practices through her nonprofit Le Hoang Foundation, co-founded by her sister Thanh Hoang, and attended several fundraising galas across the country.
At a gala in Washington D.C. in 2008, she met Edd Basilio, a logistics specialist for Operation Smile, who then introduced Dane to Robyn Elefane, Operation Smile’s senior director of events and partnerships. Since then, Dane has worked closely with Robyn on her fundraising efforts, establishing a gala in Houston that has raised more than $650,000 for Operation Smile since its inception in 2014.
“When you talk to her, you know immediately that she is cut from a different cloth,” Robyn said. “She’s very personable, very bubbly and loves to see how different people are coming up with creative ways to raise money for Operation Smile.”
We recently sat down with Dane to learn more about her path as a medical volunteer and prolific fundraiser for Operation Smile.
Q: How did the Operation Smile TV program featuring Roma Downey affect you the first time you saw it?
A: “That piece was so moving to me. I thought, ‘Look at this incredible woman who’s going all the way across the world to raise awareness for these patients.’ But in the background, I could hear people speaking Vietnamese, and not just Vietnamese, but in my accent – that made it all hit home even more. Then, I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do something like that.’ So after I saw Roma’s show, I applied to be a medical volunteer so I could help the cause and also learn more about what Operation Smile is all about.”
Q: So in March 2008, you attended your first Operation Smile mission – a dental mission to Hue, Vietnam. What was it like returning to Vietnam for the first time?
A: “When I went to Vietnam for the first time, I was really impressed with the team of volunteers which was led by Dr. Mike Gioffre and Dr. Dan Taub as they worked a 12-hour day shift to take care of the Vietnamese children. I felt motivated to work as hard as I possibly could. I worked with passion and we had this comradery among the team that was a really special.
“Being in Vietnam, Hue is where my parents are from, and I just saw so many patients and families sitting there, just waiting and doing everything they could to get free dentistry or free surgery. I took a step back and said, ‘You know what, that could have been me if my parents didn’t have the courage to make that decision to flee the country and get on that boat – not knowing if we were going to live or die.’ That to me was an awakening – that could have been me and my kids waiting for Operation Smile to come here and help us.”
Q: Do you think you would have ever returned to Vietnam if not for your volunteer work with Operation Smile?
A: “I don’t know! I really don’t know, because I don’t think during that time I knew of any of my Vietnamese-American friends that have gone back. Being a Vietnamese-American, it’s hard because I had heard a lot of stories about people going back and being treated differently. But I knew this was a great opportunity to go back to my homeland, not just for travel, but also doing some good.
“At that time, my Vietnamese was limited, but the locals would speak very fast and I couldn’t understand them. I had to ask people to slow down so I could catch on. At first, it was the strangest feeling – I’m in a country where I kind of understand what everybody’s saying, but it’s not what I’m used to. But then we started making friends with the Vietnamese student volunteers and we ended up having a blast working side by side together for the entire week. I look forward to it every year. Since that first trip, I now feel like a local.”
Q: What is it that inspires you to give so much of your time and effort to Operation Smile?
A: “Children born with cleft in the U.S. get it repaired right away. To go to any country and help change a kid’s life with a relatively short surgery, you’re not only changing that child’s life, but the lives of their family as well. When many of these children are born with cleft, they are shunned from society because of the stigma. In Vietnam, there’s a belief that your whole family is bad luck if a child with cleft is born. So when a kid receives surgery, it’s like they are whole again. You’re changing their life, their whole family’s lives, the whole community and the whole country. Hopefully as they get older, they can turn around and somehow help the organization or help other families that are in a similar situation – or just give back in general, because someone helped them – paying it forward.
“I also ask myself, ‘How did my family and I manage to arrive to the U.S. as immigrants?’ Well, it was because there were compassionate people who helped us boat refugees get here to the states after we landed in Indonesia and lived there for 6 months. So this is how I pay it forward for those who helped us. This is my passion. It’s also become my sister Thanh’s passion, and she now supports Operation Smile through her fine jewelry company Le Dragon d’Or. To me, in spite of the long hours of the volunteer work itself, in many ways supporting Operation Smile also feels like a vacation – to step away to refresh and renew just by helping others.
“And I’ve been fortunate enough to sit and talk to the co-founders, Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee, and to see how consistently committed they’ve been to this cause over the past 35 years is such an inspiration. They are people of pure compassion who believe that all kids deserve to smile and all kids deserve a chance at a better life.”
Q: I understand your 5-year-old daughter has been fundraising for Operation Smile since before she was born! How has Isabella been able to help?
A: “The journey to motherhood was not easy for me, and when I was blessed with the gift of having a daughter on the way, whenever people asked about a shower or registry, I would say, ‘I’ve got everything I need already, I don’t need anything else.’ But Isabella’s Godmother Carolyn, Godfather Roberto along with many of our friends insisted, so I said, ‘Ok, we can do one, as long as it’s a fundraiser for Operation Smile!’ We ended up raising about $5,000! Now for every birthday, that’s what we do – no gifts, but if you would like to buy Isabella something, here’s a link to make a donation to Operation Smile. I wanted to teach my daughter about the value of giving. I wanted her to learn how to serve others and to help other people. And now she understands that, and at a very young age, so that’s very special to me.”
Q: What has it been like seeing the Houston Gala become so successful and what is your vision for its future?
A: “Through the gala, we’ve been cultivating awareness of Operation Smile here in Texas. There are lots of people out there who want to support a cause, but they just don’t know which one to choose. They need to find something that’s trustworthy. When one of my friends sees me in the field, and I can tell them what I did and what I saw, it legitimizes it for them. They trust me enough that when they donate to Operation Smile, they know where the money is going to go. I really hope some of my friends in Houston will be able to join on a medical mission with Operation Smile and get to experience what I was able to experience for the first time 10 years ago. I can tell you that to be there in person at a mission site will change you after seeing the transformation of a child with a surgery that can take as few as 45 minutes.
“The first year of the gala, it did so well – more than $129,000 raised, thanks to the tireless efforts of our event chair, Viet Hoang, our honoree and committee members, Marc Nguyen and Duyen Huynh Nguyen, Mandy and William Kao, Sippi and Ajay Khurana, and Sneha and Nick Merchant! They inspired their friends including Brigitte and Bashar Kalai, and Habiba and Ali Dhanani, and every year, the event just gets bigger and better. We’re hoping that our fifth annual Houston Gala at Hotel Zaza on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 will continue to break records and inspire others to act.
“Truly, the most important lesson that Operation Smile has taught me over the past ten years is that when you put your heart into something, be it your time, talents or resources, you get what you give tenfold.”