A Family Tradition is Helping Families Around the World

Raised in a family devoted to Operation Smile, Alicia Richardson reflects on her path to attending a medical mission in Bolivia. 

By Lilly Deljoo, Student Programs Media Intern

As crowds of people arrived at the hospital in hopes of receiving surgery, Alicia Richardson was overcome by the joy she saw on the families’ faces. It was on this medical mission in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, that Alicia finally understood the impact of Operation Smile, an organization she has dedicated years of her life to helping. 

From fundraising with her dad to starting a club at her high school, Alicia’s heart has long been invested in the cause. It’s what spurred Alicia to get even more involved with Operation Smile and attend its 2018 International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in Seattle, Washington. She left her home of Toronto, Canada to go to a leadership conference far away with no one she knew. 

Reflecting on her ISLC experience, Alicia said she remembers every moment. For her, the best part of the experience is meeting people from around the world and learning what their lives are like back home.

“Right now I feel like I have a friend in like every country,” Alicia said with a laugh.

During ISLC, Alicia said she “surprised by how many people had already been on missions” and was moved by the medical mission stories she heard from fellow students she met.

The Dream

Volunteering on a medical mission had already been a longtime dream for Alicia. Her family first became involved with Operation Smile through Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies, where her father, Jim Richardson, works. He said he learned about a program there to raise money for Operation Smile with “the prospect of going on a mission and seeing it first hand.”

In about six years, the Richardson family rallied about 65,000 Canadian dollars for the organization. And as each surgery can cost as little as $240 U.S., they’ve helped to make almost 200 surgeries possible.

Alicia has always dedicated her time and effort to the family’s cause. “From stuffing bags, making posters, and all kinds of things, right from the beginning she was sort of engaged with it,” her father said. 

But this is no short process, he said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s just do a fundraiser this weekend’ — it was like six months of Operation Smile stuff on our dining room table,” Jim said, with Alicia joking that it takes up their entire house! 

From raffles to scholarships, they do small fundraisers all year long in addition to their golf tournament that’s an annual draw. Recently, Alicia has been collecting bottles to donate for fundraising money, which has already raised a few hundred dollars, and they’ve already raised almost 4,000 Canadian dollars this year. Alicia is currently working for Operation Smile Canada during her gap year — she’ll attend McMaster University this fall and study social science.

The family knows their efforts have made such an impact on patients’ lives, and they’re determined to keep it going. Jim has been on five medical missions with Operation Smile, and as soon as he returned home “I showed the pictures and just detailed the experience to Alicia. … I think that was like where, right out of the way, Alicia was like, ‘I want to go on a mission. What can I do?’”

Coming True

After ISLC, Alicia was prepared to apply for Mission Training Workshop the following January in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Alicia arrived at Operation Smile Global Headquarters and was greeted by all her friends she had met at ISLC the past summer. 

A few months later, Alicia was finally a part of the medical mission she had long waited for. The conference prepared her well for the mission, — so much so  that “actually I was more scared presenting in front of the people in the mission training than actually on my mission.” she said.

Alicia experienced it all on her medical mission, from observing surgery in the operating rooms to presenting health-care modules to the patients and their families. Her team visited local schools and orphanages.

“It was packed, we were like nonstop,” Alicia said. 

Alicia takes a selfie with another volunteer at the mission site in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. (Courtesy Photo by Alicia Richardson). 

Even after hearing stories and seeing photos from her father’s previous missions, Alicia’s mission gave her an even greater appreciation for the impact of Operation Smile. 

“When you are fundraising, you don’t really realize how much of an impact this organization does until you are actually there and you see for yourself,” Alicia said. 

Through their work with Operation Smile, the Richardson family feels a part of a bigger family. 

It’s “like a bond we have just by experiencing the time with these families, these children, and mothers,” Jim said.

Alicia chimed in, saying, “Some of the people who went on my mission knew (my dad) when he went on the next mission.”

“It’s like a big world, but it ends up being a small group that stays tight together,” Jim said.

Lilly studies at the University of California Los Angeles and got her start with Operation Smile in high school. She attended a medical mission in Lu’an, Anhui, China in April 2019.