In early February, I received a much unexpected email.
Operation Smile’s own Jennifer McKendree – who runs Student Programs – was reaching out to share some exciting news. If you aren’t familiar, for the past three years, Lay’s has changed the packaging on their bags of potato chips to feature the smiling faces of individuals in an effort to raise funds and awareness for Operation Smile. This year, just like the last, Lay’s wanted to feature individuals who brought smiles to their communities on the bags, and Jennifer had written explaining that for my contributions to Operation Smile’s student programs had led them to choose me as one of the “Lay’s Smilers.” Overwhelmed with both excitement and curiosity, I wrote back expressing the honor and humility I felt in accepting this nomination.
As a student volunteer of around seven years, I have found myself involved in Operation Smile as often and in as many ways as I could. My journey started when I attended the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in Limerick, Ireland, where my love and admiration for Operation Smile was born. Having been born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate myself, I found a new world of acceptance and understanding there. I knew then that I wanted to do anything and everything I could to contribute and give back to this incredible organization.
In doing this, I founded a fundraising club at my high school, attended each ISLC for my years in high school as a member of the Student Leaders team. At these conferences, I noticed a number of attendees with cleft conditions. In 2015 in San Diego, with much-appreciated assistance from the founder of Student Programs, Brigette Clifford, we organized a luncheon to gather participants with cleft conditions.
At this meeting, there were seven of us in attendance. The following year in Los Angeles, 12 participants had cleft conditions.
And then at ISLC 2017 in Italy, something magical happened that became one of my fondest memories with Operation Smile.
I had been slotted into the schedule to speak to the conference as a whole about my experience growing up and living with a cleft condition. The day before my presentation, however, when had our annual luncheon – this time with more participants than ever – I came to a realization.
My story was only a small fraction of the experiences to be had with cleft conditions. I asked our group if they would feel comfortable joining me on stage for a question-and-answer panel in order to represent a larger portion of the population with cleft conditions. Following their excited acceptance, I hastily edited my presentation to the bare-bones stories and descriptions of surgeries. The panel after my presentation is easily one of my happiest and most emotional memories of my life.
While this was the final ISLC I would attend, I am incredibly excited to know that the panel has continued each and every ISLC following Italy. My contributions may have led to a nomination for Lay’s Smilers program, I believe that I have only ever done what each and every Operation Smile volunteer has and continues to do: anything they can to support and help this wonderful and beautiful group of people dedicated to changing the world for the better.
Brady is studying Public Health Policy at the University Of Rhode Island. He’s been involved with Operation Smile for seven years and attended a medical mission in Ethiopia in 2014.