LEA 2020: Lessons Learned

Students from a dozen countries gathered together in Colombia for a week of cause and camaraderie at our Latinoamérica en Acción conference. Here are the lessons they learned during their week together.

By Sol Sanchez, Student Programs media intern

Valentina Del Valle of Guatemala poses for a photo with Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee as well as photographer Carlos Rueda as she receives a fundraising award. (Operation Smile photo)

Operation Smile is a global family: “I am glad to say that what I take away from LEA in Colombia are the friends I made, without any doubt,” said Valentina Del Valle, who’s from Guatemala. 

The 17-year-old is part of our newly assembled CUEL 2020 team, comprised of our high school and university leaders across Latin America and the Caribbean. She is ready to work side-by-side with students from all over the region to spread the message and further the mission of Operation Smile Student Programs, in her community and beyond. 

“In such a short time they became my family,” Valentina said. “We may be from different parts of the world, but most importantly we share our passion and commitment for Operation Smile.” 

Annia Ferradas plays for her team “Pastusos” during the Game Day of LEA 2020. A traditional game from every country attending LEA is selected to be enjoyed during this day full of laughter and fun. (Photo by Carlos Rueda - Operation Smile)

Connection is powerful: Annia Ferradas participated in Mission Training Workshop just before this conference, her second LEA. She learned what it takes to be a health care educator, and now she’s ready to go on her first medical mission, to Chiapas, Mexico, in April. 

During LEA, the 18-year-old learned another lesson that will greatly benefit her during her medical mission: the power of building bonds.

“It was incredible for me to connect with people I knew so little about in such a short time. especially during Pavel’s session,” said Annia, who’s from Peru. 

Guest speaker Pavel Lau asked the participants to bring their most valuable object to the conference. It had to be of little monetary value but of great sentimental importance to them. In that session they had to explain why that object was so important and he also asked them, only if they were willing to, to exchange items with someone very special and carry someone else’s object as if they were their own. 

“I was amazed by how good it felt to be the one receiving the special object of a friend,” said Annia. “I am happy to be here, and I am definitely coming back next year. To be able to learn from people so talented and courageous is a real privilege.”

On service project day, the participants shared a morning full of games and candies with children and adults born with multiple disabilities. (Photo by Carlos Rueda - Operation Smile)

Together, people make change possible: For volunteer Maria Alejandra Berberian, LEA inspired her to always give 100 percent to every situation. 

After all, her peers need her to do her best.

“This LEA taught me that what it takes to make a significant change is to have the right group of people doing the right thing for the right reason — that is Operation Smile for me,” said the 17-year-old from Panama. “(Attending LEA) is a unique opportunity to … be part of this big group of people that is educating and getting educated to be a little piece in the change they want to see in their communities.”

Norelyssa Peralta gives a warm welcome to a friend on day one of LEA. (Photo by Carlos Rueda - Operation Smile)

Step out of your boundaries: To say Norelyssa Peralta is a committed Operation Smile volunteer is an understatement: She worked with the whole CUEL 2019 team to make the weeklong conference one for the books. 

It was the opportunity to work with the team that taught her the most. 

“Living five days with people so encouraging, who push you out of your boundaries and fill you with all the energy you need to make things happen and to be ‘a part of the change’ you want to see out there — I think that is one of the biggest contributions Operation Smile does to its student community,” said the 19-year-old CEL member from Nicaragua.

LEA is a treasured experience: It was on the flight way home to Bolivia that 19-year-old Renato Antelo realized his lesson learned: “Each and every LEA I attended will forever be in my heart.”

“On my way to Colombia, I thought that this being my fifth LEA, maybe it wasn’t going to be as new as my first LEA, but I was going to see my longtime friends and meet new people,” said the CUEL 2020 team member. “Now that it is finished, I am 100 percent sure that it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been to a LEA, it is always a groundbreaking experience. The way that every feeling, every story, every person strikes you and pulls your feet out of the ground, it makes you feel as if it is the first time again.” 

The freshman psychology major has now been to five LEAs as a participant. Now it’s time for him to work to make LEA 2021 in Mexico an unforgettable experience for the next group of Operation Smile leaders.