ISLC Live Blog 2019

Participants put together goodie bags for the staff and patients of the UNC Craniofacial Center in Chapel Hill. (Operation Smile photo by Carlos Rueda)


It took almost a dozen people to wrangle more than 20 big tote bags into the hallway just outside of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Craniofacial Center.

Each bag — basically a plastic crater with handles — was loaded to the brim with candy-filled goody bags, complete with a handwritten and encouraging note. “Your smile is a superpower,” one of the notes read.

The #ISLC2019 participants were the superheroes behind this sweet endeavor. They rallied the candy, wrote the notes and packed it all into hundreds of the snack-sized plastic baggies, which were then placed in the tote bags.

Craniofacial center intern Garrett Bailey said that when he was told about Operation Smile coming by with bags of candy for the center’s patients and staff, he was thinking along the lines of grocery bag-sized containers. Seeing more than 20 large tote bags lining the hall was moving, he said.

“To everyone involved, it sincerely means a lot that people take time out of their schedules to help for a cause that not enough people know about,” Bailey said.

The recent Appalachian State graduate said that he knows this service project will have an impact. As a former patient himself, Bailey said the goody bags will be a meaningful show of support to the patients, their families and the center’s staff.

“From our end, it will be a tremendous asset that will allow us to further our connections with the patients, as well as spread awareness about Operation Smile, cleft lip and cleft palate and other orofacial issues,” he said.

“When I look at these bags, I see smiles,” said Jessi Hill, administrative and clinical manager of the craniofacial center. She said that she plans to use the goody bags to kickoff her kindness campaign at the center.

Thanks to everyone at the UNC Craniofacial Center for welcoming us and for everything you do for your patients and their families. We also send our thanks to the incredible Operation Smile university volunteer Ryan Cody, the dental student behind Exchange for Smiles, for joining us and for being the exceptional human being that he is.

Operacion Sonrisa Peru's Daniela Rondon Cantuarias and student volunteers from Peru pose on stage with their country's flag after it was announced that ISLC 2020 will take place there. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


Inspired by the 2018 ISLC theme, then Team Leader Shirel Pardo decided to “go against the current” and go for her dream of hosting the conference in her home country of Peru.

“Operation Smile is just a reminder of all the things you can do,” Shirel said. “With effort and the correct attitude, the world is never too big for you. That’s a life lesson Operation Smile gave me, and I’m committed to spreading the word.”

After months of working hard to convince all Operation Smile stakeholders that the conference should be held in Peru, Shirel herself got to leap on stage before the #ISLC2019 audience and celebrate that, for the first time ever, the 29th International Student Leadership Conference will take place in Latin America.

“This is the greatest honor of all,” said Shirel, who’s now in university. “We have already hosted a LEA (Latinoamerica en Accion) conference for our Latin American family, but being able to host the world is indescribable.” LEA, which will take place in Colombia in 2020, is just like ISLC but held in Spanish.

“Student Programs Peru has had an exponential growth during the last few years, and this is a very big step for us as a team. Having this opportunity is the best reward for all the heart and dedication we put into working for Operation Smile,” Shirel said.

Shirel said that #ISLC2020 participants can look forward to lots of hugs, music, culture diversity and yummy food.

Registration for #ISLC2020 will open in August.

Arsen Muhumuza is a medical student in Rwanda who has been volunteering on medical missions for two years. He hosted a breakout session on global surgery during ISLC 2019 and served as a chaperone for Team Butterfly. Here, the future surgeon poses for a portrait on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Photo by Bethany Bogacki)


He didn’t know her, but she knew him as the man in the Operation Smile T-shirt who changed her son’s life.

The mother approached Arsen Muhumuza during a surgical rotation as he and the members of his Operation Smile student club were helping translate for the international medical volunteers. She told him about when their paths crossed, when he and his fellow students visited her community. Arsen is a medical student, and to mark World Oral Health Day, he rallied some peers and headed to her community to educate people about cleft lip and cleft palate.

He didn’t have to teach her. Her son was born with a cleft condition, and she already knew all too well about the impact it can have on eating and speaking, as well as social acceptance.

That day, Arsen didn’t just tell her that Operation Smile was there to help her son. He changed her community’s perspective, she told him.
“She was like, ‘All the people in my community discriminated against me,'” Arsen recalled. “‘They said it was my fault to give birth to this child. You did this to yourself, and this kid was like an ambonitiaton.’ It was so deep, the story she told me. But when we were teaching in that very community, people asked so many questions about it.”

But this is the power of Operation Smile student volunteers, Arsen said. They’re advocates and educators who lead their communities and change minds. He feels this empowerment most powerfully when he teaches others across his country about his field of study in medicine.

The Operation Smile student volunteer found himself at ISLC this week, as both a breakout speaker — he taught the participants about global surgery — and as a team chaperone, hoping to help his youngest peers understand this important role that they have to play.

“When you’re a medical student, the communities trust you to give them the right information,” he said. “It’s a good space, and when you explain, they understand that it’s no one’s fault to have cleft lip or cleft palate or any other congenital anomaly.”

No matter what field the young students pursue, acting as an ambassador for Operation Smile is an important role — and one that changes lives.

Jack, right, threw the honorary first pitch at the Winston-Salem Dash baseball game on Friday, July 19. The baseball player ended up signing the ball and giving it back to Jack. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


In a special kind of cultural exchange, the conference participants from 21 countries got to enjoy America’s game Friday for the conference’s off-site activity, watching as the Winston-Salem Dash took on the Wilmington Blue Rocks and dominated 9-3.

Phan Manh Tung of Vietnam — who goes by Jack — had the honor of throwing the first pitch, and just before he headed to the mound, he said he was so nervous and excited that it hard for him to put it all into words.

It was his first time picking up a baseball, Jack said, let alone throwing the first pitch at an American Minor League game — and just like he had been all week, he was remarkable. His team won a daily challenge task, and as a reward, they got to pick a member of their team for this honor; everyone said he deserved this opportunity because he had been such an active and collaborative member of the team.

All 400 conference participants spell out “ISLC” on Davis Field on the campus of Wake Forest University. (Photo by Juan Jose Marin)


This captures our week in one photo: Despite all the chaos of corralling more than 350 conference participants into forming each letter of “ISLC” — plus an underline — we all walked away with this happy moment from our time together. As you get settled back at home, let this photo be a reminder to channel the chaos you feel into changing the world.



It’s not ISLC without the YMCA.

It’s a tradition for the co-founders of Operation Smile to close the annual concert with the classic tune as a confetti cannon showers the venue.

We send our love and thanks to the amazing Michael Trevino for not only hosting the concert, but for also supporting Operation Smile and its mission for the last eight years.

“Quite honestly, one of the best weeks/weekends I’ve had in a long time,” Celebration of Smiles performer Cody Daniel shared on his Instagram, @codydanielmusic. Daniel and his team of talented musicians brought the house down during his set and had students jamming out.

Daniela Sanchez of Ecuador shares her story with the Celebration of Smiles audience. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


Two team leaders had the opportunity to share their personal story during the concert. Here are their highlights:

Daniela Sanchez: “I’m 16 years old, and many times I ask myself, ‘If we all come into this world with a purpose, what’s mine?’ A year ago, I didn’t know,” Team Leader Daniela Sanchez said during the ISLC Celebration of Smiles. “But today, I’m standing here to share with you some of the things I’ve done. I want to thank Operation Smile because they helped me believe in myself.”

Abigail Demartini told the audience about her medical mission experience in Morocco last year. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)

Abigail Demartini: “With Operation Smile, it’s not just about healing kids with cleft lips and cleft palates. Yes, that’s the purpose, but it’s about being compassionate and showing emotion for other humans,” said ISLC Team Leader Abigail Demartini. “This is why I love what I do, this is why I love Operation Smile. It brings people together. I’m just so thankful for Operation Smile.”

Maeve Kelly poses for a portrait after Team Games during ISLC 2019. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


“It’s hard for me to figure out why I would be so fortunate to have that. Why me out of everyone?” Maeve Kelly asked herself.

As a student volunteer from Davis, California, Maeve is proud to share that a year ago today, she left the operating room with the hope that it would be the last surgery she would receive to repair her cleft lip and cleft palate.

Maeve had the loving and caring support of her family throughout each and every surgery she received. But she knows that this isn’t a reality for most of the children born with this condition. That’s why she began to investigate how she could help children who needed care, but couldn’t get access to safe surgery.

Operation Smile was the first thing that came up.

“Having cleft lip and palate myself, I know how hard it is, and I can’t even imagine how it is if you don’t go through surgeries. I was dropped off at an orphanage when I was in Lebanon. I was adopted by a loving family and brought to California when I was four years old,” Maeve shared with tears in her eyes. “I was fortunate enough to get those surgeries and get it paid for. It wasn’t a struggle for me. If I could help anyone that’s going through what I could have gone through if I wasn’t as fortunate as I am, that’s everything to me.”

She runs an Operation Smile student club at her school, and they’ve done an amazing job raising awareness for the organization. So well in fact that a company from her community donated T-shirts for every member of the club.

“They give us the opportunity to do this at a young age in order for us to be a part of the movement and not just sit and watch from the sidelines,” she said after listening to the co-founder’s speech during this year’s ISLC opening ceremonies.

“If I get the chance to talk to a parent that has a child with cleft lip or palate, I would say: ‘Hang in there because it’s totally worth it. Don’t worry.’ I would encourage and support them to have a great life. There’s Operation Smile, everything will turn out OK in the end.”

Our faces when we put together our first-ever all-virtual ISLC. (Carlos Rueda - Operation Smile photo)


From opera singers to dance squads to slam poetry, there is definitely no shortage of talent among the ISLC participants. But what’s most impressive isn’t how a dancer appears to be made of rubber, or how a singer rallies a roaring crowd to their feet — really, it’s the love and encouragement that every act receives from the audience that makes the ISLC Talent Show a true delight.

Students have brought dozens of Waves 4 Water filters to medical mission sites; they bring the filters where it's needed in the community. (Operation Smile photo by Carlos Rueda)


Envision holding an empty glass after attempting to get a drink from the kitchen faucet. Or imagine having to walk six hours every day just to collect water — water so full of bacteria and mud that it’s become milky and brown.

For the 844 million people around the world who lack access to clean water, these are just a few of the obstacles they may face.

After shocking the audience of changemakers into action, Christian Troy, executive director of Waves For Water, emphasized how water is often taken for granted. But as a humanitarian aid organization known for its disaster relief efforts, Waves For Water has witnessed the devastating impacts that lacking access to clean water can have on communities and families around the world.

The organization tactically and efficiently takes the solution directly to the problem, Christian said to the audience. And for student volunteers like Annia Ferradas, being that solution is possible with Operation Smile Student Programs.

“It’s so easy to use. It can be student-led,” said Annia of Peru. “We can use the filters to show people that having clean water is actually really important. I think it comes from what Operation Smile is. Of course we help kids with cleft palate, but we can also do so much more.”

And “more” is exactly what Operation Smile student volunteers are doing.

They have already brought dozens of filters with them to medical missions with the goal of educating communities on how to use and care for the filter. If properly maintained, a filter could clean a family’s water supply for five years, Christian said.

With that, he left the participants with one final message: “Do what you love and help along the way.”


The way Billy Strean puts it, successful leadership could quite literally be in the palm of your hands — and in your legs, back and shoulders.

“As we change our bodies, we change our minds,” he told the audience. “Our minds change our behaviors. Our behaviors change our outcomes.”

It’s important to be mindful that body language can speak louder than words, he explained, especially in particular social situations. Think about a job interview setting, he said: If your shoulders are hunched over, what does that say about where you’re trying to go in life, let alone about where you are currently.

“You have the opportunity and power to shift who you are, how you’re being,” Billy said, and it’s important to calibrate your body accordingly.

“Billy Strean energized and inspired the students at ISLC 2019,” said Hilary Kellam, the volunteer student coordinator for Operation Smile Canada. “His talk made the students think about how their body posture influences their confidence and sense of leadership … and I think they will be more mindful about their body language so that they can become the leaders they want to be.”

Lucy Tam of Guatemala has decided to study biomedical engineering because of her experience volunteering for Operation Smile. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


The smallest things in life — blowing bubbles, holding hands — gave Lucy Tam the answer to her biggest question in life: What is her purpose?

“I think everybody is lost at one point in their life, because they don’t know what to do,” said the 17-year-old from Guatemala City. “I found out doing the smallest things could change whole families’ lives. With Operation Smile, I found my purpose.”

Over her two years with the organization, Lucy has built bonds with the families who return for checkups and comprehensive care. She said that these friendships — especially her connection with a mother and son from El Salvador — have inspired her to study biomedical engineering after she graduates in October so that she can play a key role in providing the high-quality surgical care for which Operation Smile is known to provide.

In the meantime, though, Lucy said she’s happy to be here at her first ISLC, where hundreds of her peers share her same purpose.

“There’s so many nationalities with only one purpose — I love that,” she said. “All with just one mindset to change people’s lives.”


Amanda Lonergan had something so important to say that she shook off her nervousness and rallied up the courage to speak with Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee after their ISLC 2017 presentation in Rome.

What she wanted to say was, “Thank you.”

“I walked up to them, I said hello, and I thanked them for believing in Student Programs,” the Team Leader from New Jersey recalled as she introduced the Magees.

Not everyone has shared such confidence in young people, Kathy told the ISLC audience. She kicked off her address with a story about the time when she and Bill were invited to present at a medical mission conference in San Diego. They shared stories from when they would bring students with them on missions and be able to witness the incredible impact that the students had on the patients, their families and the community at large.

“We were bombarded,” she said. “They got up and said, ‘That is the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard, bringing students on these missions — are you crazy?’

“We were in the middle of chaos … and we didn’t listen to them at all — they didn’t know what they were talking about,” Kathy said. “You’re the future, right, and we want you to be a part of this forever.”

And with hundreds of high schoolers in the room — 40 of whom had recently received training on how to serve as health care educators during medical missions — this message of turning adversity into adventure hit home.

“Thank you for providing an environment for students to take action, forming an organization that teaches us to be humble and grateful daily,” said Emily Yamashita of Germany.

Operation Smile Co-Founder Dr. Bill Magee speaks to students about having the confidence to take action. Among his tips: "Don't be afraid to fail. Move Forward. Be Brave. Take Risks. Look upon yourselves as a select group of human beings who had the confidence to do what you're doing." (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


We asked ISLC participants what they would say to Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee. Here are a few responses.

  • “I think it’s amazing how many people have had a chance to touch lives through Operation Smile. Thank you so much for the opportunity!”- Maryam Saleel,  United Arab Emirates
  • “Thank you for being the pathway for those who deserve the right to safe surgery and the ones they can count on when they’re shunned by society.” – Lenora D’Souza, United Arab Emirates
  • Thank you for inspiring me to pursue my dreams.” – Lavinia Elser, Italy
  • “What you have done not only for the people desperately in need of surgery for a better quality and safe life, but also for many people around the world is amazing. Thank you’ – Ella Marshall
  • “You are such influential people, and I think that you should be known everywhere for the amazing work that you do.” – Libby Dobson
  • “Thank you for giving the opportunity to everyone to smile.” – Januaria Gizzi, Italy
  • “Thank you for giving everyone the opportunity to feel like normal people and that they can be accepted by their communities. Everyone deserves that.” – Sophie Grunnesjoe
David Rendall speaks to students about how they can use their uniqueness to achieve success. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


When David Rendall told the audience that there’s another building next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, students and chaperones were so skeptical that they resorted to Google.

Challenging the audience, Rendall asked why anyone would want to take a picture of a crooked bell tower when there’s a perfect building with classically beautiful straight lines right next to it.

Simple: Because “What makes us weird also makes us wonderful,” he said. “What makes us weak also makes us strong.”

Rendall’s message resonated with many of the participants and inspired them to share their own stories of pivot and perspective.

For Maria Victoria Salvador of Ecuador, hearing from Rendall offered some relief.

“I have dyslexia, and exactly like he mentioned in his talk, my parents were worried and worked a lot so I could improve my school performance,” Maria said. “I’m thankful for what they did because I improved a lot. But it makes me feel better about myself to hear him tell all these stories about overcoming what looked like adversities by putting yourself in a situation in which that becomes your strengths.”

Danny Rosin is the co-founder of Student Programs. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


The love was evident in its holes and frayed sleeves.

Holding an “old-school” Operation Smile T-shirt from 1985 — just three years after the organization was founded — Danny Rosin used it as a special metaphor for memories made with the organization.

“You carry (these memories) with you throughout your entire life, and I’m a testament to that,” said Danny, the North Carolina-based co-founder of the marketing firm Brand Fuel. “I hope you have one of these T-shirts with you when you’re 51 years old and you’re standing up here like me.”

Thirty-something years after helping start the first-ever Operation Smile student club, Danny found himself on stage before hundreds of students who he has helped carve a path for, sharing wisdom as well as ways to create experiences with impact that rally more donations and, in turn, make more surgeries possible.

“What I liked the most about Danny’s speech was his advice to really develop and take advantage of the relationships that we create here at ISLC, and use those to benefit both Operation Smile and our communities back home,” said Sean Doherty, a Team Leader from New Jersey.

Whether it’s an exclusive movie screening or a food fight dodgeball tournament where you chuck cupcakes instead of balls, Danny rallied the students to get creative and take action.

“This moment is yours, and what you do with it is up to you.”

Brigette Magee Clifford speaks to the students about her experience and her family's legacy. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


It’s time, she recalled her mother telling her. It’s time for him to make friends outside the family, time for him to go to school.

Her school — a private school where she was new and still getting established and trying to make her own friends.

Brigette Magee Clifford was a teenager in high school when her parents, Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee, welcomed the boy with a blue bandana into their home.

Behind Antero’s blue bandana was the severely infected skin of his mouth, cheeks and nose which had been peeled open by bacteria. Behind his blue bandana was pale skin that had been shielded from sunlight for so long that it made a stark, heartbreaking contrast.

The bacteria continued to eat away at Antero’s smile because his village in the Philippines lacked access to antibiotics. His condition was grave, but the Magee family refused to let him go without the care that he needed. They brought Antero to their home in Virginia so Bill could personally lead the procedures that would give Antero the life they knew he deserved.

Fast forward to the Magee family kitchen. Brigette told the audience that her jaw dropped after hearing her mother’s request. During that time in her life, she was around the same age as many of the 300-plus high school students in the audience, often finding herself sympathizing with the confusion and conflicted feelings that can come with being a teenager.

At this age, you have a choice: You can let what you perceive as chaos — confusion, conflict — have a negative impact on your life and others. Or, instead, you can have a positive impact on the lives of others by pivoting and approaching a chaotic situation from another perspective.

Of course, Brigette chose the latter. Together, they went to school, built up their community of friends and, in the process, built up their own self-confidence.

Here, Brigette is rallying the audience of Operation Smile advocates to do the same. Sit with someone new during every meal. Engage with others and learn about what life is like back home. Ask questions.

“With change, there is always chaos,” said Brigette, the co-founder of Operation Smile Student Programs. “We believe that if you are able to embrace it and thrive in it, you will be more creative, you will be able to act with more spontaneity.”

Almost 400 participants from 21 countries joined together at the conference. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


Sixteen-year-old Ricky Kim learned about Operation Smile from his friend’s Instagram story, but today, he has his own story to share. Ricky represented his country of South Korea for the first time during ISLC opening ceremonies on Monday at Wake Forest University.

Ricky was one of 21 students and chaperones who presented their country’s flag to the 400 conference participants, crossing the Wait Chapel stage with the flag and sharing their Operation Smile highlights from the past year.

Students meet their teammates and start to join fun moments together. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


“I hope that during this conference, each and every one of you will find it within yourself to do more in a small way. Whether that means you sign up for Talent Night or decide to start a new club for next year, I hope you do it. Don’t just be another one — be the one,” said Team Leader Camille Michalak during opening ceremonies.

Camille encouraged her 400 fellow ISLC participants to be proactive in their Operation Smile journey and to make the best of their experience as the conference kicked off. Photo: Carlos Rueda.

The Drum Collective works with the Team Leaders to show the students how what seems like chaos can be creative. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


Jana Elbialy of Egypt didn’t miss a beat when it came to catching the metaphor behind the music during opening ceremonies.

A violinist herself, the 14-year-old said chaos can take many forms, including the apparently random pounding of a drum. But as multiple drums start playing in unison — like when the North Carolina-based Drum Collective rallied some rhythm from our Team Leaders as they tipped and tapped across the instruments — the chaos evolves into collaborative creativity. Which was exactly what we were going for!

Maryam Saleel, left, and Lenora D’Souza, right, run the top club in the UAE and will take part in a medical mission in China this fall. (Operation Smile Photo by Carlos Rueda)


Lenora D’Souza and Maryam Saleel of the United Arab Emirates aren’t just close friends: They’re a dynamic duo with a legacy of firsts.

From running the UAE’s first-ever Operation Smile club to being the UAE’s first student team scheduled to attend an international medical mission, the Cambridge High School students say their passion for Operation Smile is driven by their innate calling to serve others.

“For me, Operation Smile is my platform to give back,” said Lenora. “I think growing up in the UAE, you realize how much privilege you have and how much your parents are able to get for you. Operation Smile is my starting platform — and I’m grateful for it — because it just helps me give back to everyone. It should be a basic necessity for everyone but it’s not, and so Operation Smile makes that happen.”

Now attending their first ISLC, they said they’re looking forward to meeting even more friends and bouncing off ideas for activities and fundraisers.

So, we’re just going to say it: The theme for ISLC 2019 is definitely more abstract than in years past.

“Chaos: Discovering adventure in adversity,” that’s our theme and motto. Chaos, adversity, adventure — it’s all so relative that each of these terms mean something a little different to each of us. Your idea of chaos might be someone else’s everyday experience. For example, you might think that living in a big city is chaotic, but for someone who lives in a big city, the hustle and bustle is just a normal part of their life.

So, why did we take this on as our theme for our big annual gathering? Allow us to explain.

Swimming through papers and swamped with to-do’s and deadlines, it’s no secret that you all are busier and brighter than ever – and you guys are seriously at the tip-top of the class. In between overcoming a mountain of assignments and racking up accolades, you pivot from excelling in the classroom to accelerating progress in global health, volunteering during Operation Smile medical missions and fundraising to make more possible. You all – even as teenagers – are really changing the world, one smile at a time.

And while you’re having a global impact, you’re also having to wrestle with the innate confusion that comes with being a teenager – what to do for a career? What’s the next step? What’s the right decision? You’re weathering this chaos as your inner compass calibrates and finds its North.

#ISLC2019 will confront this chaos and work to show you all how, with even just a little tilt in perspective, there really is adventure in adversity. With just a little shift in attitude, you can find opportunities in every obstacle. That, despite this chaos, you will always have agency and the ability – perhaps even the responsibility – to make a difference. What Operation Smile and this conference aim to do is empower you all to confront your own insecurities and embolden you to challenge your own self-imposed limitations.

We’re always in pursuit of that one right answer, but we want every one of you to walk away knowing that even adults don’t have all the answers – and that, a lot of the time, there really is no such thing as one right answer. No one has it all figured it. We want you to not only embrace this but enjoy the journey that comes with finding your own right answers, your own true North.

Chaos is a constant. In our world, in our community, in our hearts, there will always be chaos to face, there will always be challenges overcome. But there will always be Operation Smile, and this global family is here to help guide you as you chart your course.