“It is when you leave home to participate in an international mission that you get to really experience the connection with this incredible group of talented people from all over the world,” said Carlos Rueda. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Rueda)

By Sol Sanchez, ISLC 2019 media intern

Rolling up the sleeve of his Operation Smile T-shirt, photographer Carlos Rueda reveals a tattoo of an eagle clutching a camera roll. 

“When an eagle leaves its nest in search of food, it doesn’t yet know where it is going but goes anyway because it needs it,” Carlos explained.

That is how you venture as a volunteer on an Operation Smile medical mission, he said. 

“You don’t know yet where you are going, but you say ‘Yes’ anyway because you know how much of an impact you will have on the lives of the children who receive surgery for their cleft conditions,” said Carlos, who’s from Guatemala City. “You are helping a child rejoin society. You are giving the child a chance to go to school. You are empowering them to grasp all of the opportunities that every child should have.” 

Channeling the spirit of the eagle emblazoned on his arm, Carlos has gone great lengths to serve Operation Smile since it opened its doors in Guatemala in 2011. He started as a volunteer Patient Imaging Technician (PIT). Since 2015, he has covered both local and international missions as one of the six accredited Operation Smile photographers worldwide, attending 35 missions in 15 different countries. Carlos said he is willing to continue doing it for as long as he can.

“It is when you leave home to participate in an international mission that you get to really experience the connection with this incredible group of talented people from all over the world,” said Carlos, who also works with Operation Smile student volunteers across Latin America. “You get to share meals, knowledge, moments of pure happiness and some of concerns, but it is in those moments that bonds are made.”

Carlos Rueda snaps the group photo for the Summer Mission Training class of 2019. Carlos has covered two ISLCs and more than 30 medical missions. (Photo by Bethany Bogacki)

After returning from a mission in a foreign country — which could be as spectacular as Jordan — people often ask Carlos if he got to visit a tourist destination or memorable place. Due to tight schedules and other variables, it is not always possible for volunteers to visit tourist hubs, but it is in those moments that Carlos reminds us that our goal is bigger than us all. In helping to provide the best care for Operation Smile’s patients and their families, Carlos got to know the country in the most special way possible. 

Being a volunteer of Operation Smile gives you the opportunity to know that country more than any other tourist. You get to know its people, their culture, their sorrows, their hopes and joys. You have not only connected with them, but you have helped them. 

“In Operation Smile, we hold out our hands to help them have the best life that they can have,” Carlos said. “Life is about choices, and we can be sure that we have chosen the best part of it by helping other people.”