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UNTIL WE HEAL Global Campaign Launches at the International Student Leadership Conference

Though the sun beat down relentlessly on this humid morning in San Diego, the energy emanating from 514 International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) attendees would not be matched.

The crowd — comprised of students from 29 countries donning eye-catching red t-shirts — took its first steps of the more than three-mile round trip walk from the campus of San Diego State University (SDSU) to Alvarado Hospital and back. Against the summer heat, each stride symbolized the distances many people in low- and middle-income countries must walk when attempting to access safe surgical care.

Together with Operation Smile, these young activists launched the UNTIL WE HEAL global campaign at the 25th annual ISLC, which took over SDSU from July 18 through July 24.

The first campaign of its kind for Operation Smile, UNTIL WE HEAL engages and inspires young people to advocate for the billions of people — two-thirds of the world’s population — who do not have access to live-saving surgical care.

“It’s heartbreaking to know how many children around the world cannot receive access to safe surgical care and have to suffer in pain because of it,” said Kathy Magee, President and Co-Founder of Operation Smile. “Access to safe surgery is not a problem on many people’s minds. We are so proud of our student volunteers and young leaders who are taking on the challenge to bring this issue to the forefront and be advocates for those in need.”

The campaign centers around three avenues for advocacy. Through social media, supporters are asked to share the UNTIL WE HEAL pledge: “Safe surgery is not an option for far too many people around the world. I've taken the pledge, I will not stop #UntilWeHeal every last child.” Then, they are encouraged to host an awareness-raising event and organize a fundraising project in their communities.

Access to safe surgery is not a problem on many people’s minds. We are so proud of our student volunteers and young leaders who are taking on the challenge to bring this issue to the forefront and be advocates for those in need.

- Kathy Magee, President and Co-Founder of Operation Smile.

UNTIL WE HEAL was also the theme of ISLC, which brought together students from around the world to engage in leadership workshops, listen to inspirational keynote speeches and train for upcoming medical missions in which many will volunteer. Twenty student teams competed in a “hackathon,” which challenged them to work collaboratively to identify and solve a global health issue to reduce childhood mortality. The UNTIL WE HEAL Innovator Award-winning entry was “Tires for Toes,” in which students conceptualized upcycling discarded tires into protective footwear to combat podoconiosis, a severe and potentially life-threatening swelling of the lower extremities, in Ethiopia. Other hackathon entries focused on alleviating poverty and malnutrition, improving water sanitation, improving access to prenatal education and increasing awareness of underqualified physicians.

The conference culminated with the student walk followed by the UNTIL WE HEAL concert, emceed by actor Michael Trevino and featured an acoustic set from Grammy-nominated musician Chris Daughtry and a performance by internet dance sensation John Philip “Big Bang Balang” Bughaw.

Big Bang Balang’s dance videos received millions of views after several appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show; and at 7 years old, he became Operation Smile’s youngest ambassador after learning about the organization’s work. This year, Big Bang Balang found a young girl in his village in the Philippines, Aliyah, who was unable to afford surgery to repair her cleft lip and cleft palate. Big Bang Balang introduced her family to Operation Smile and this fall she will receive free life-saving surgery.

At the concert, Big Bang Balang debuted a new song, “Big Bang Bounce,” as well as a new dance he hopes will help raise awareness for the UNTIL WE HEAL campaign. He challenged students to recreate his dance moves, then share their own #BigBangBounce videos on social media to advocate for the global lack of access to safe surgery.

For ISLC attendee Blain van Wyk, UNTIL WE HEAL carries a very personal meaning. The South African graduate student was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate which has required more than 10 surgeries spanning his entire life.

“I have a social responsibility to dedicate myself to Operation Smile and to help other children just like me,” van Wyk said. “It’s not just about one surgery — it’s so much more than that. It’s about giving a child hope.”

For more information on the UNTIL WE HEAL campaign, visit



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.