Hugs, Balloons, Bubbles, Tears- Cassidy’s Time in Asuncion, Paraguay
Story by Dena Salehipour
Photos by Juanjo Marin
Hugs, balloons, bubbles, tears — student volunteer Cassidy Lee got a real taste of Operation Smile magic during her time at a surgical program in Asuncion, Paraguay.
“Operation Smile isn’t just about changing smiles. It’s literally about changing futures,” Cassidy told us. “So when you see that right in front of you, it’s just so magical and so beautiful to witness firsthand.”
We caught up with Cassidy during her time in Asuncion to hear more about the impactful experience she had — and hear about the magic ourselves.
Operation Smile Student Programs: So, Cassidy, you’ve been here for a week now, how’s the experience so far?
Cassidy Lee: Attending a surgical program has been the most incredible experience of my life. You hear so many stories and you see pictures and videos of what it’s going to be like, and people tell you about how life-changing these programs are, but you don’t understand. And you can’t grasp how really it does alter your perceptions on so many things, until you see the lives being changed firsthand and getting to witness the Operation Smile magic shine through in every way.
OS: You mentioned “Operation Smile magic” — having the experience of being in a country where that magic happens. How does this feel?
CL: For so long, we worked in our communities to raise money, do service projects like collecting toothbrushes and toothpaste or toys for the child-life room — and then being here and getting to see the toys being used in the child-life room, the toothbrushes being put in the Smile Bags, the fundraising going to the medical supplies, housing, and the staff. It’s so just incredible to see how local students and communities can have such a huge impact on such a large organization.
OS: And what do you think that you’ll take back to your club?
CL: Although my club is very small, I really want to inspire more people to get further involved with Operation Smile, and I just want to share how even though they may not be able to see their impact, even just doing one small service project can influence and change so many lives. What they do impacts everything, and I just want them to see and understand that.
OS: How do you plan to go back and share this experience? I know that it’s something that you’ve been explaining, but how do you feel like you can do it? How do you feel like you can share this experience that you had in order to impact other lives?
CL: I want to share some pictures and videos and also I’ve been writing about really big important moments that happen, things that I want to remember. Big ideals that I want to take back to people and share because they have such deep messages behind each and every one of them that really show and grasp how impactful Operation Smile’s work is. And really just through pictures and videos, you can see the joy in the kids’ faces even as they’re just playing with the balloon with you, they just love your interactions with them.
OS: Do you want to share some reflections that you’ve made so far?
CL: Of course. So one thing I did not expect coming here, I definitely knew that I was going to be able to connect with the children and interact with them and play with them, but I had no idea I would form such great relationships with their parents, and I just feel for them so much because they travel for so long. Some of them, and all they’re focused on is their child.They’re not caring for themselves; they’re not eating, they’re not drinking. All they care about is their child. And it’s so heartbreaking to see that they have to go through that. But it’s also so heartwarming to see that they just love their children so much they would do anything. It’s just really amazing to see that relationship between them. I was very surprised with all the connections that I’ve made with the families.
OS: During these days that you’ve been here, you’ve lived so much, I’m sure. What changes are you seeing yourself?
CL: I feel like I appreciate everything so much more than when I did when I came here. Everybody would say “Oh, you’re going to come back a different person” and I didn’t realize what that meant. And you can’t change in a week, but your perceptions can and your ideals of the world around you can. …I was watching a child going to surgery, a child that I had been playing with and interacting with a lot, but I had never met the parents. And this mom, the girl was laughing, having fun. She was excited to go into surgery and the mom was being so brave for her daughter. But as soon as the daughter was out of the way, she just broke down into tears. I was shocked because I didn’t know this mom. And I just grabbed her and I held her and we cried together because even though I may not be able to understand what she’s going through, I see her, I hear her. I want to help her. So I just it’s it was a beautiful moment. I’m happy that we got to experience that.
OS: That gave me goosebumps. Sometimes you don’t get to see these experiences without being on a program, but now that you know — we tell you all the time that you are the change, you are the ones that are helping our children to get surgery and care that they need. Now that you’ve experienced the impact of Operation Smile Student Programs and being on a surgical program, how do you appreciate it more?
CL: For years, I dreamed about going on a surgical program, and I never thought it would happen because I knew they were so competitive. In the beginning of the year, I actually wrote my goals for the year that I wanted to accomplish with Student Programs and Operation Smile, and one of those was going to a surgical program. And I was like, “Oh, I’m never going to check it off.” And here I am – when I get home, I’m going to be able to check it off. But you just understand the Four Pillars of Student Programs so much: the education, the advocacy, the fundraising and leadership, the service, everything is interconnected. Everything works hand in hand, and everything needs each other to be able to form this organization.
OS: To the others who are applying now for the next program, what would you say to them?
CL: I would say, throw all of your expectations out of the window. Every mission is going to be so different, but it is going to be such an experience of a lifetime that you’re just going to want to soak in every moment. Put your phone down, get off social media, just take a look around, and really enjoy that you’re in another country. You’re learning about culture, language, and you’re literally watching children’s lives and futures. Operation Smile isn’t just about changing smiles. It’s literally about changing futures. So when you see that right in front of you, it’s just so magical and so beautiful to witness firsthand. So just take everything in and really enjoy it, interact with the children and the parents a lot, and have fun.