Meet Our 2022 Educator of the Year: Rita Trecroce
Story by Dena Salehipour
“Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft condition,” said a voice from the television. “$240 or $20 a month makes new smiles possible.”
Rita was amazed watching her young daughter stand in front of the television, completely mesmerized by the infomercial. The second the commercial was over, the little girl turned around and told her mother that they had to do something to help the kids on the TV.
Rita was inspired by her daughter, Annina, and said she thought to herself, “If a five-year-old can make a difference, imagine what hundreds of high schoolers could do.”
Eighteen years later, Rita recalls this moment as the spark of her involvement with Operation Smile. As a French-Immersion teacher at St. Mary’s College in the town of Sault Ste.Marie, the Canadian educator has rallied her students to make a powerful impact in the lives of Operation Smile’s patients: Throughout her school’s 16 years of fundraising for the organization, St. Mary’s College has raised more than $96,000 — and as a surgery can cost as little as $240, that is an impact that touches hundreds of families and communities worldwide.
Rita’s daughter related to the children she saw in the video, Rita said. Annina also looked different than her peers, sporting an eye patch to school due a medical condition. She asked Rita many questions about cleft lip and cleft palate, and upon learning about these children’s lack of access to health care, she insisted that they take action.
So they devised a plan. From that point onward, Annina would ask for donations toward Operation Smile each year for her birthday, hoping to sponsor one child’s surgery each year.
This motivated Rita to introduce Operation Smile to her school administration and students in 2006. She made sure to really educate her students about the impact of the organization, its values, and the many lives touched by Operation Smile. Since then, Rita has gone beyond integrating Operation Smile into aspects of student life but has also incorporated these philanthropic efforts into the faith-based curriculum of her school. How? By being determined, consistent and inclusive and letting that speak to her passion.
“If it’s something you’re really passionate about, others will see and feel that. If you lead with your heart, everything will fall into place”
Every October, the Grade 12 French-Immersion Religion class is in charge of leading the Operation Smile fundraising week. The week is tied into the unit of study for Rita’s class, and students receive some volunteer hours for their involvement. Everyone in the class plays a critical role, drawing on their strengths to execute creative fundraisers. For example, if a student is heavily involved in sports outside the classroom, they are encouraged to organize the intramural sports tournaments, such as dodgeball, which is a fan favorite at the school. Students from all grades are involved in the festivities of the week, Rita said, and year after year, they look forward to their Grade 12 year when they can run the show.
The high school has been home to many creative events. These include, but not limited to: carpool karaoke and a late-night show including spoofs of the sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The group also has some core fundraising events that are repeated year after year, such as hoodie sales and selling of smiley fries and smiley cookies, which are made in-house by their own students.
Rita received the Educator of the Year Award from Operation Smile Student Programs at the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in 2022.
At Operation Smile’s 2022 International Student Leadership Conference, hosted at the University of Miami, Rita gave an amazing presentation, walking the audience through her journey with Operation Smile and all the amazing events her students have executed. It was a highly personal presentation that showcased Rita’s commitment to the cause and prompted many questions from curious students from around the world. Even Operation Smile Co-Founders, Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee, who were in the audience, were astounded by Rita’s ability to involve her colleagues in the fundraising events.
Rita’s advice? “You need people to buy into whatever it is you are passionate about. Approach people that have influence on staff and are of the same mindset and pitch them your idea. Show them what the organization is all about and the impact you can have”. Rita adds jokingly, “You want to create FOMO (fear of missing out) around the event so that everyone buys in”.
Rita believes that her role as an educator is to instill core values in her students including: compassion, kindness, leadership, collaboration, solidarity, and active listening. By teaching her students, she hopes for them to go out into the world and become the next generation of student leaders working to make the world a better place. Rita said, “It breaks my heart knowing that these young children don’t have access to healthcare like we do. It’s a grave social injustice, and it’s something I’m very passionate about”.
She believes that this passion starts with having a positive mindset.
“We take for granted that we have this ability to smile and uplift the spirits of those around us. A smile is the universal language of acceptance, it tells someone, ‘I see you, you matter to me, without even saying a word’”, she said.
Although Rita said she expects to retire in the next 3-5 years, she still plans on continuing her involvement with Operation Smile. She will continue personally fundraising and potentially act as a consultant, helping other Operation Smile chapters achieve the same success that St. Mary’s College has. She is also very excited at the prospect of attending an Operation Smile medical program.