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Pete Hansen is in a unique position to best understand the impact of Operation Smile’s Serving Smiles initiative – and not just because he’s been helping student volunteers unload boxed lunches from the back of his car.
As the senior student programs associate at Operation Smile, Pete understands the power of rallying young people to support a cause.
He’s a fixture on the music scene here in Hampton Roads, Virginia, so he’s well connected to local restaurateurs. And, most importantly, he’s the husband of a nurse who’s been working long hours as Hampton Roads – and the world – grapple with the effects of COVID-19.
So, when his student team shepherds locally prepared meals to hospitals across his community, he knows they’re not just bringing lunch – they're bringing the community together.
“Having the opportunity to partner local students with local restaurants to send some meals and love to local health care workers who are caring for local patients is simply priceless,” said Pete, who manages Operation Smile student advocates across Virginia. “As the spouse of a hospital nurse, I know exactly how stressful and challenging this time is for health care workers. I think I speak for all of our student volunteers when I say how very fortunate we are to have this opportunity to send some love to the heroes who are on the front lines of this pandemic.”
As the world confronts COVID-19, Operation Smile student volunteers across the U.S. and Latin America are bringing the organization’s global spirit of service to their hometowns through its Serving Smiles pilot program.
It’s a three-pronged approach to supporting the pillars of their communities during this challenging time: Young people are rallying their neighbors to bring much-needed business to family-owned eateries, so that their meals can fuel our health care workers – it’s a true win-win-win.
In just two weeks, the Serving Smiles effort has provided nearly 2,000 meals to six hospitals in Virginia and two in New York City, as well as hospitals in Florida and California and a fire station in Paraguay. Volunteers have sent care packages of coffee, tea and bottled water to three hospitals in the country of Panama.
And that’s just the beginning: More deliveries are slated for hospitals in Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah in the coming week.
Here’s how it works: Operation Smile Student Programs is tapping its student leaders and, together, they’re connecting with both hospitals and mom-and-pop restaurants in their region. While Operation Smile works with the restaurants and covers the cost of meals, students are fundraising to provide even more lunches in the coming days and weeks.
Where possible, the high schoolers help make the delivery all while maintaining social distance, wearing masks and taking every precaution recommended by health officials.
“This service project is just another example of how powerful we are as a community, and that we have strength through unity and cooperation,” said Abby Hendrickson, a student at Princess Anne High School who helped deliver Gourmet Gang to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. “Local restaurants and active student leaders are working together to provide for our medical heroes during this crisis. To me, that’s inspirational and shows how one small act can go a long way for another.”
“It was our staff’s pleasure to work with Operation Smile and their student volunteers to help bring smiles for those who are caring for our community,” said Mia Guinan, owner of Hampton Roads-based eatery Gourmet Gang. “We wish them well and appreciate the opportunity to be involved.”
Serving Smiles got its start when Will Clifford, home early from his gap year in Ecuador, decided to take action. After all, doing good is in his blood – he's a grandson of Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee.
Every day for the past two weeks, Will has delivered 60 lunches to Sentara Princess Anne Hospital, located just blocks away from Operation Smile Global Headquarters in Virginia Beach. That’s more than 800 from restaurants such as Bagel Baker, Hot Tuna, Northend Pizza and more.
“While times are tough, it’s so great to see all the love and generosity in my community,” said Madison Speiss, a student from Oscar Smith High School who helped deliver meals to Norfolk General Hospital. “Every person I encountered on my delivery, from pickup to drop-off, was cheerful and so willing to help for a great cause.”
This cause has been so well-received that Operation Smile celebrities are championing its support among their followings.
“The Serving Smiles initiative truly speaks to the heart and core of Operation Smile,” said American actor Bryan Cranston. “Giving back and supporting others in desperate times of need is what they do best. I’m proud of the organization and admire this new initiative where they’re supporting those on the front lines of this health pandemic by providing thousands of free meals to hospital employees all across the country.”
“Even in the worst of times, Operation Smile finds ways to give back and support communities globally and locally,” said actress Kate Walsh. “I’m proud of the organization and its newly launched Serving Smiles program, which involves donating thousands of meals to hospitals. This effort feeds the soul and spirit of our health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight. It’s a kind gesture that shows gratitude and appreciation for those putting their life on the line to protect ours.”
That Operation Smile has mobilized so many young advocates to support their communities in such a short period of time speaks to the organization’s three decades of nurturing budding volunteers around the world.
“Who would have known 38 years ago when we got high school kids involved with this that we’d be where we are today,” Bill said in a video message to rally student volunteers to get involved with Serving Smiles. “I cannot tell you how important you are. You’re the ones who have the connections, you’re the ones who can speak to your parents, you’re the ones who can speak to your friends, and we need you now more than ever before.”
From holding an annual International Student Leadership Conference to training high schoolers to serve as health care educators on medical missions, Operation Smile has always invested in youth.
By offering up this Serving Smiles platform, Kathy knows it’s not just the restaurants or health care workers who will benefit – the students will gain valuable skills as well.
“Our students are active with us year-round, and the COVID-19 pandemic has given them an additional opportunity to focus,” Kathy said. “This was first initiated by students who wanted to help their health care workers and support locally owned restaurants. As a result, we’re building relationships with the community and showing the strength of Operation Smile, and the students are gaining leadership skills that will propel them for the future.”