A self-described introvert, 15-year-old Lily Namata found herself on national television in her home country of Malawi, giving a live interview about Operation Smile and its mission.
Now, Lily is finding herself on an international stage at this year’s Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference in Lima, Peru, networking and sharing her story with volunteers from over 20 countries worldwide.
“If you had asked me a year ago, before I joined Operation Smile, to travel 28 hours to a new place with new people, I would’ve definitely said no, but by volunteering with Operation Smile I feel like now I’m trying to take new risks and I’m seeing life in a new view,” said Lily.
At such a young age, Lily is already making giant strides toward spreading cleft awareness in her local and national communities. “When we tell people about Operation Smile and its free surgeries, we are helping a lot of people in Malawi.”
Lily is the president of her Operation Smile club at Saint Andrews International High School in Blantyre, Malawi, where she and her club fundraise money for surgeries and hold school events to educate students about cleft conditions.
“Educating people can break down stigmatizing barriers and make communities more open and understanding towards people born with clefts,” she said.
Lily believes that it is essential that everyone understand the struggles and reality of having a cleft.
“Being born in Malawi with a cleft has a shame attached to it, and Malawians born with clefts often go into hiding because of it,” she said. “They often don’t go to school and don’t interact with folks in their city.”
Lily explained that her student club’s primary goal is to target people who don’t know much about cleft lip and cleft palate and adequately inform them so that they can empathize rather than judge people who look different and even educate others themselves. “It’s like a domino effect, where more and more people will continue to learn the truth about clefts.”
In fact, according to Lily, Operation Smile Student Programs motivated her to step out of her comfort zone entirely.
In her mission to educate the public as much as possible, Lily gave a morning interview on a nationally broadcasted Malawi news television program. “It was filmed live so I was pretty nervous, but also excited to spread information about Operation Smile to persons who don’t know anything about us.”
According to Lily, most people in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, are aware of Operation Smile, but those who live in rural areas often have no knowledge of Operation Smile or what they do.
By appearing on the national Malawi news, Lily’s interview, which included valuable information about cleft birth conditions and Operation Smile’s free surgical programs, became accessible to those living all over Malawi.
“There are many Malawians who are really passionate about helping people and even if you don’t hear about us on big news programs, we are still here and we are still making an important impact.”
Lily hopes to increase her impact with Operation Smile even more with her attendance at this year’s International Student Leadership Conference in Lima, Peru. She wants to learn how other countries are spreading awareness about Operation Smile in their communities.
“The way Malawi helps Operation Smile could be different to how China does, or how Rwanda or the United States does. I want to share my ideas and taking into consideration other students’ ideas so that I can take them back home and try to adopt those with my club.”
In Lima, Lily has already met various student leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and she has been enjoying learning about the different cultures within Operation Smile’s student programs.
When she first learned she would be attending ISLC, Lily was thrilled and diligently researched Operation Smile’s past student leadership conferences to prepare. “Every week, I was checking online to see if any new information was posted because I was so excited to come to the international conference.”
Back home, Lily remarked that many of her friends were in disbelief that she would be traveling to South America to meet with other Operation Smile student leaders.
There is definitely no shortage of student volunteers in Malawi who are enthusiastic about the chance of attending a future ISLC.
Lily’s individual generosity towards others and her community’s willingness to help with Operation Smile’s mission is clear evidence of why Malawi is affectionately referred to as the warm heart of Africa.
“Even though Malawi is really small compared to some other countries at ISLC, we still proudly do a lot of hard work and advocacy for Operation Smile!”
Lily also affirms that being a leader in Operation Smile has made her want to be a role model to anyone who will listen. “I want to be a role model to all the little girls and all the young people who want to help good causes in Malawi.”
Click this link to learn more about Operation Smile Student Programs International Student Leadership Conference and Align Technologies ISLC Student Scholarship Program.
By Jackson Doane, ISLC media intern