Putting the ‘LEA’ in Leadership

Bringing together more than 400 student volunteers from 15 countries, our virtual Latinoamérica en Acción (LEA) conference shows how high schoolers and undergrads can make a difference through Operation Smile. Here are stories from the speakers and students behind the conference.

‘For the Simple Fact That We Exist’

Pavel asked our LEA participants to bring something that has a lot of value and something or someone that is very valuable for them.

The screen filled with students holding up cash, teddy bears, rings, bracelets, and many other objects. Then there were a lot of them putting their parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, little dogs and more, in front of the computer camera.  

“There is an endless list of things that people tell us are worth a lot, but on the other hand, we have things or people in our life that mean the world to us,” Pavel said.

And then Pavel asked a packed virtual auditorium with more than 400 student volunteers connected from all over Latin America:  “And, do we mean the world to ourselves, too?” 

Certainly, we live in a time of conflict regarding people’s values, and being plugged in to our devices to remain in touch with the world is making it even more difficult. 

“Mi valor es incondicional (My value as a person is unconditional),” Pavel said emphatically, meaning that our worth is not subject to what other people society, social media think of us or their stereotypes.  

One after another, our students mentioned what they think makes them valuable. Some said the love they give, the respect they have for others. 

And then Ana Sofia Villamil, a CUEL student leader from Venezuela, spoke up. She said, “We are worth a lot for the simple fact that we exist.” 

Our brightness and personal value is not sought outside of us, but is found within us, and becomes valuable when we give it to others.

— by Sol Sanchez

‘Embrace Differences’

With that feeling only Operation Smile’s co-founders can inspire, we kicked off our LEA conference with more than 400 students hearing from the legendary Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee.

“Embrace differences,” Dr. Bill Magee said during LEA 2021’s opening ceremony. The co-founders of Operation Smile talked about the challenges that the COVID-19 Pandemic brought to the organization and how students can help us overcome them.

When speaking about how we can overcome adversity, Kathy said “Do something different, do what you can dream of.” The only way to have a different result is by doing things in a new way, and that’s how we improve, she said.

The Magees inspired students to go and work for every single smile that we can create for our patients and their families. They encouraged them to listen to others and learn from people; after all, we are here because we did listen to every single person who wanted to give us advice.

Their presentation ended with a single and easy tip to be better people: Be respectful, honest, polite and friendly.

— by Juan José Marín

‘Closer Than Ever’

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we were far away from this first day of LEA — we didn’t even imagine that LEA 2021 was going to be virtual.

But here we are, “Closer Than Ever” as our theme reads: More than 450 participants, representing 15 different countries, all of us creating new memories and making new friends.

“We are creating history” said Gaby Sagel, Student Programs’ senior associate for Latin America and the Caribbean. “The idea to create a virtual LEA and making it as real as possible was the biggest challenge.” 

And to make this virtual experience as real as possible, students from all over Latin America have their own “roommates” and teams. They had some meetings to get ready for the conference before it even began.

With games, an amazing list of guest speakers, and the excitement of every LEA, we are here, celebrating our eighth year, ready to have the best experience that we can.


— by Juan José Marín