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The gift of a smile: 30 years of Operation Smile

MANILA, Philippines - Lauding the vibrant positivity and renowned hospitality of the Filipino people, founders Bill and Kathy Magee cannot think of a more appropriate place for Operation Smile to have been born than in the Philippines.

“30 years ago, if that first mission was not in the Philippines, Operation Smile would never have been born,” says Bill. “There’s something magic about the Philippines. There is a genuine warmth and caring.” When the Magees first came to the Philippines in 1982, on a medical mission in Naga City, it was this incredible warmth, juxtaposed with the country’s incredible need, that pushed them to return to the Philippines regularly and start Operation Smile.

Bill and Kathy look back fondly on their first visit to Naga City. Kathy remembers gathering at the Shakey’s restaurant on the ground floor of their hotel for pizza and karaoke after a long and tiring day of operations.

“We were 15 volunteers and there were about 250 patients,” Kathy recalls of their first medical mission in the country.

“We literally stood in the middle of the room in tears,” she adds, describing the moment that the team realized that they would not be able to help everyone.

Despite not being able to operate on each and every patient who needed help, the Magees and their team were overwhelmed by the gratitude that the citizens of Naga showed. Bill recalls the pivotal moment in the birth of Operation Smile: A woman carrying her daughter approached him. They had not been able to operate on her daughter – there simply was not enough time or manpower to do so – but the mother offered Bill a bunch of bananas as a gift for just being there, for just trying to help her child.

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This mother’s simple act of gratitude had such a profound impact on the Magees that they vowed to get a group of friends together and come back to Naga. “It was the emotion of those few days” Bill credits as the catalyst for the founding of Operation Smile.

He adds, “Reason leads to conclusion, but emotion leads to action.”

The determined couple was able to put together another team and raise funds to return the following year. “There was no grand plan,” Bill admits, saying that each small step they made on the journey of Operation Smile brought them to what is today an international network of 5,000 volunteers, with a presence in 61 countries. The foundation has, so far, transformed the lives of some 200,000 children around the world.

As Operation Smile got on its feet, the Magees – who are based in Norfolk, Virginia – found themselves immersed in the large Filipino-American community in their area, who actively supported their fund raising activities. “Whether in the Philippines or back home, the Filipinos were always there to make this possible,” says Kathy.

The group soon teamed up with Operation Blessing of the 700 Club and was given an extra boost with wide coverage from three local TV stations.

Soon, Operation Smile was able to send two teams – one to Naga City and another branching out to St. Martin de Pores Hospital in Manila.

Thirty years later, the Magees have returned to Naga City in an anniversary celebration dubbed “The Journey Home.” From Oct. 25 to Dec. 1, the couple headed a multiple site medical mission.

Operation Smile’s 30th anniversary celebration brought medical teams to Koronadal, Angeles, Silay, Cagayan de Oro, Manila, Dasmariñas, Cebu City, General Santos, and its birthplace, Naga City.

“There is a tremendous need that exists and will continue to exist. After 30 years, we have the responsibility to find different ways to help more children,” says Bill.

 

Moving forward, the couple is pushing for higher standards in healthcare and hope to find ways to make surgical operations safer. 

One of their latest projects is called Lifebox, which aims to raise funds to provide hospitals in developing countries with pulse oximeters used to monitor patients during an operation. They hope to see one on each operating table in the Philippines in the near future. “Our challenge is not to be afraid to challenge the existing standards,” says Bill.

This year’s mission also has two additional components: free dental treatment in Koronadal and the launching of a research study in Manila that focuses on determining the genetic and environmental factors that cause clefting.

 

Upon arrival in Naga, the Operation Smile team was greeted on the tarmac by a marching band. “The hospitality was bigger and better than ever,” says Kathy. “It just felt like home.”

“We might have been facilitators, but people who grow Operation Smile are the volunteers who embody the love, compassion, and vision of Operation Smile,” says Bill.

Operation Smile Philippines’ president and executive director Bobby Manzano concurs, “What sustains Operation Smile through the years is the volunteers.”

He notes that the mission involves the entire community and each visit can only become successful if the various groups – volunteers, donors, local government units – work together. Manzano, who has been a volunteer with Operation Smile for 19 years, adds that as a volunteer, “something in you also changes.”

Operation Smile truly changes lives of everyone involved in the mission.

Cleft patients are not only given a physical transformation. Each successful operation potentially changes each child’s life, family, and future. “They are no longer trapped in their own body,” says Bill.

“In as little as 45 minutes, you can totally change their future,” he adds. “You’re giving them a chance at life.”

Operation Smile has also changed the lives of the whole Magee family.

“On our first trip we brought along our oldest daughter Bridgette, who was only 13 at that time. She served as Bill’s scrub nurse as he performed the operations,” Kathy shares. When they got back to the US, Bridgette’s mind was still with the children she had encountered in the Philippines. Together with friends and classmates, she started a group called “Happy Club” to collect books and school supplies to donate to schools in Naga.

There are now some 900 clubs with thousands of students raising money.

“Bringing a 13-year-old into the operating room was unorthodox,” Bill admits, “but if a child becomes a better person – a better mom, a better citizen – because of that experience, then it is worth doing.”

Now a mother of four, Bridgette is still raising money and support for Operation Smile.

In fact, the whole Magee brood of five – and 13 grandchildren, with one more on the way – have been actively involved in various organizations that reach out to impoverished communities.

Noting the impact joining Operation Smile missions has had on their own children, the Magees have extended this opportunity to other youth by offering conferences in the summer with some 700 high school students discussing how young people can change the world.

They regularly bring teens along on Operation Smile missions around the world. “Now we have hundreds of students involved,” says Kathy, who shares that even a little five-year-old saved her money from the tooth fairy and wished that all her teeth would fall out so she could donate money to the cause.

“We have an opportunity to expose people to goodness, expose them to the beauty of different cultures,” says Bill, adding that this has become more than an opportunity for the family, but a responsibility.

“Our children learned the beauty of giving,” says Kathy. “Our family was enriched – they understand the world. It has bettered the way we live every day… These are gifts to mold who we are today.”

“In the Philippines you nurture your family,” says Bill as he reflects again on the country, culture and people whom he has come to know over the 30 years that he has been visiting the country. Both he and Kathy become emotional as they think of their own family back in the US – STARweek’s interview with them falls on Thanksgiving Day. Though they miss their family dearly, the Magees agree that being in the Philippines for Operation Smile’s 30th anniversary is equally important and fitting.

“Operation Smile has been a very big part of our family,” says Bill.

Because of the Magee family and Operation Smile, hundreds of thousands of children around the world can give thanks for a brighter future – all because of the gift of a smile.

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