Editor’s note: The theme of the 2019 International Student Leadership Conference is “Chaos: Discovering adventure in adversity.” Chaos, adventure, adversity — they’re all pretty abstract ideas that mean different things to different people. To help make these ideas more concrete, more real, we’ve written up this list of ways volunteers like you have turned a challenging situation into a learning experience through your involvement with Operation Smile.  

By Sol Sanchez, ISLC 2019 media intern

It’s a fact of life that we’ll all face challenges, but it’s how we overcome those challenges that says a lot about who we are. For these Operation Smile volunteers, serving the organization didn’t just help them face their challenge — it helped them face themselves. Here’s how they turned adversity into adventure. 

Yanik Sitta

As one of the founding members of the Operation Smile club at his school in Paraguay, 17-year-old Yanik Sitta has helped raise awareness with the #45minutes social media campaign, rallying media attention and interviews for Operation Smile.  

But for Yanik, it hasn’t always been easy to be so outgoing. 

“I have lived in three different countries, and I am only 17 years old,” he said. “I was always the new guy.”

To Yanik’s surprise, he found a special group of students that made him feel welcome, inspired and eager to come back. 

“Operation Smile has helped me bring out the best of me, to show myself to the world the way I am and to feel proud about that,” Yanik said. “I felt that I belonged to Operation Smile since the first time I participated in an activity of students programs. All that passion for the cause only grew bigger when I was able to meet the patients and the incredible volunteer network that works around the world.” 

Ana Sofía Villamil

Ana Sofía Villamil of Venezuela isn’t just a longtime Operation Smile volunteer she’s basically a lifetime volunteer. The 18-year-old said her mother, a volunteer anesthesiologist for the organization, has been bringing her to medical mission sites since she was 3 years old.

Those years have been full of sensitive moments moments that taught her it’s the relationships you build that matter most.

“There were many times I had to push myself further to help that parent, to feel a little more comfortable with the whole situation of being outside the operating room, feeling powerless and sorry for the times they are waiting anxiously for the news of whether his child is having surgery or not,” she said. “This way I learned how to approach people that are affected by the consequences of a reality much more vulnerable than mine.”

Ana Sofia is a committed girl who wants to built a future where everyone is taken into account, and she’s taking action now through Operation Smile.

Valeria Mejia

Sixteen-year-old Valeria Mejia got involved with Operation Smile at the hospital. Not specifically during a medical mission or as a student volunteer, but as a patient there.

She was receiving treatment for her blood condition, idiopathic thrombocytopenia. This disease causes many marks and wounds in her body, for which she said she’s always felt very ashamed and different. 

While she was there, she had to change rooms. When she asked why, the nurse told her that the room she was in was going to be used by an organization that offers surgeries to children born with cleft lip and cleft palate.

“The next day, I went to see what was that all about. I saw the photo of a child,” said Valeria, who’s now a a member of the CEL leadership team.

 That year, Operation Smile went to her school in Duitama, Colombia, in search for volunteers. 

It was time to act, she told herself; she decided that she was not going to be defined by her disease or insecurities.

“I am an active person. I like to do things, and I consider myself a leader,” she said. “But I was afraid of not be taken seriously because of those little marks in my skin.”

“That day, after seeing the photo of that child and learning all the struggles that they go through to survive, I realized how lucky I am. Operation Smile helped me love myself and gave me the courage to embrace my reality the way it is.”

Cristal Britez

Cristal Britez of Paraguay was helping at the medical records station during screening day and was confronted with a challenge.

More than 70 percent of her country’s population speaks their native language, Guarani, in daily life — but like many other young people, Cristal hadn’t learned it.  

“Most of the patients and their parents who come to Asunción looking for the surgery or treatment they need speak only Guarani,” said Cristal, who’s 20 years old. “During our medical missions, this can be an issue because most of our student volunteers don’t speak the language and find a hard time understanding what the parents are saying. That happened to me more than once when I was filling the medical records during screening day. I figured that it wasn’t just me struggling with that, so I decided I had to do something about it.”

With the help of some friends, Cristal prepared a manual with basics expressions and questions in Guarani to help the volunteer crew to communicate better with the patients and parents.

For the next medical mission, she is planning to run a Guarani class where student volunteers will be able to recreate many medical mission situations where they will have to face the demands of the language.