Welcome to Our LEA 2023 Blog

Throughout the week, we’ll be posting updates and highlights from our very special 10th annual Latinoamérica en Acción (LEA) student leadership conference. More than 100 participants have joined us from 10 countries to learn how to better advocate for our patients born with cleft lip and cleft palate. 

Updates by Student Programs Content Coordinator Juanchi Marín |  All photos by Carlos Rueda of Operation Smile

LATINOAMÉRICA EN ACCIÓN 2023

Ten years ago, a dream called LEA started — and today, where everything started, the 10th LEA begins.

Panamá is the host of this edition of Latinoamérica en Acción, which we call LEA, and more than 100 students from more than 10 Latin American and Caribbean countries are ready to learn and ignite change.

“If you love what you are doing you’ll be good at it,” Operation Smile Co-Founder Bill Magee told the auditorium while talking about the organization’s Next Decade of Love and Leadership. He encouraged the students to use their talents to create change.

Dr. Magee inspired students to go and work for every single smile that we can create for our patients and their families. He encouraged the conference participants 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.

With the traditional flag ceremony, we embraced our theme for this year, “10 years connecting LAC.” Each country was represented by one outstanding student proudly toting their flag to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

With great pleasure we welcome every country and their delegations and encourage them to learn as much as they can and be part of this new decade of Operation Smile.

¡Hola mi gente linda! (Hello my beautiful people!)” is the way Marcela García, the Colombian influencer, chose to start our International Day at LEA 2023.

And while she radiated positivity, she shared with our audience the struggles she had grappling with public opinion.

“In one of my darkest moments, I had to choose if keep going down or to go forward, and I chose to keep going forward,” Marcela told the 100 student volunteers each dressed in their country’s jersey.

International Day is a tradition in every student conference of Operation Smile. During the day, the teams competed in an international trivia with random categories from sports to Operation Smile, where Team Costeños took the win. They also played traditional games from each country of the region.

Medical Director Dr. Carlos de León opened the afternoon teaching our volunteers about cleft conditions. Our CUEL team showed why they are the leads of the conference with two sessions, one about the pillars of Student Programs and the other about how we manage our time.

Our day closed with the International Party where each foundation sold swag and hosted a parade with their traditional outfits.

“How beautiful it is to be hispanic and to have latin blood in our veins,” said Monica Jauregui, chaperone of Ecuador, when taking the stage with her delegation.

We closed our second day filled with the connection between the countries represented in Latinoamerica en Acción 2023.

If you’re invited to train, you could expect to be heading to the gym. But Susan Dominguez, our speaker of the day, invited us to train our emotions.

“I have good and bad news for you: The good one is that we can train our feelings, the bad one is that we won’t be always OK, but that’s OK,” she told our students as she taught a large vocabulary of emotions.

She said the first step to working on our emotions is to identify them; that’s why it’s important to know the correct words.

For our second session of the day, we had two panels, one from our alumni and the other from our community of supporters born with cleft conditions.

Daniela Durán, Valentina Donado and Ivana Jelenszky are longtime volunteers from Panama and came to LEA to share their experiences with our volunteers.

“You always have to keep in mind that you are not the star, our patients are,” Ivana said as Daniela and Valentina agreed completely. They also shared the opportunities they had as a student volunteers, such as being part of the CUEL team, internships, and attending programs.

The annual Cleft Connect panel is always full of tears, and this one was no exception. We had patients and parents invited to share their experiences with the students.

“Having my baby here with me is my greatest blessing,” said Doralis, the mother of Aderlys, a 10-year-old patient of Operation Smile Panama.

We also invited patients Alejandro and Jose Isaac, as well as Carlos and Cristina, the parents of Cristobal and Arturo who were born with cleft lip and cleft palate.

We ended our day with a night of “100 latinos dicen” (“100 latinos say”), where Team Union took the win against Team Jaguar.

“Emotion leads to action,” said Operation Smile Co-Founder Dr. Bill Magee on the opening night of LEA 2023. During the conference’s annual service project, it came full circle.

Our student volunteers went to Caipi Alegres Corazones Felices, a school close to our hotel. The students painted a mural with flowers, sea animals, and, of course, the Operation Smile globe. 

They also painted games on the floor and some benches in the garden. After painting, we had a small beach party with more than 70 kids from the community, where our leaders played with the kids and gave them Smile Bags and a hot dog.

Andrea Serrut, a Panamenian passionate about volunteer work, helped our students identify when and how volunteer is done. “Inequality is where the volunteer work is born,” she said.

Talent is the way we closed our night, with more than 15 acts  sharing their gifts with the LEA 2023 Talent Show night. Fernando Ramos from Guatemala tied in the first place with Sarah Soto from Dominican Republic; Fernando performed a song in sign language, and Sarah performed a dance.

When a student team leader and a speaker of the first LEA come back for the ten edition, both as speakers you understand what full circle means. Juan Diego Vásquez was the team leader of Team Union back in LEA 2014 where Cesar Barría was a motivational speaker. Now in LEA 2023 they both came back as speaker to motivate our students.

“Each one of you have their own Strait of  Gibraltar, and you’ll have currents that will deviate you but you have to keep moving forward” Cesar said to our students, he is the first latin person  to cross that strait in 2008. He lives with a prosthetic leg due to an accident when he was in his 20s.

What is to be brave? is the way Juan Diego chose to start his session, where he told the students that being a leader requieres courage and sometimes that means taking hard decisions. “You have to be leaders for the change” he told to the auditorium.

After those two incredible sessions we had the LEA games where the 9 teams played against each other on the beach. Team Supay was the big winner of the whole conferences that also had Daily Challenges were photos, videos and questions where included.

At the final party we also congratulate our outstanding volunteers from the conference, Manuela Barriocanal, Constanza Da Re, from Paraguay and Fernando Ramos from Guatemala. We also rewarded our chaperones Armando Boquín from Honduras and Alexandra Arcos from Ecuador. The delegation that was also rewarded was Colombia.

And that’s how another Latinoamérica en Acción comes to an end and we can’t be more exited to 2024 and all the things that are coming for 2023!