It’s Time to Step Up

Gathering virtually for our third annual Step Up Symposium, almost 200 undergraduate volunteers from more than 20 countries have teamed up to make a difference in the lives of Operation Smile’s patients. This blog aims to capture some of their stories, as well as a look into what they’re learning during this important conference.

Dynamic Duo Pilots Friendship Project

In the wise words of a fourth-grader from Antigua, Guatemala, “Empathy is when you feel someone else’s emotions.”

This was among the responses that student volunteers Anna Gans and Drusa Carrassi received during their peace mission trip with Operation Smile in early 2020, before the pandemic. The university students spent two days mentoring fourth-graders in Antigua as part of Operation Smile’s new antibullying program that aims to teach elementary schoolers the values of empathy and identity. 

“We started the first day by asking the kids what first came to their mind when they heard the word ‘identity,’” Drusa, who’s from Rome, shared with the Step UP participants. “… Some said identity is what makes you different and others said it is what you like to do, and everyone had different perspectives on what that was so it was very interesting.” 

While in Antigua, Anna and Drusa partnered with a local nonprofit organization, Niños de Guatemala. Its focus, the duo said, centers on breaking the cycle of poverty and empowering their community by providing education to almost 400 students from low-income families. 

In this partnership between Operation Smile and Niños de Guatemala, Anna and Drusa were able to educate on empathy, identity, and bullying through a span of two days to a group of fourth-grade students. 

“During our time with the students, they were very mature and sensitive to the topics that we presented, which was great,” Anna shared. “It was a fourth-grade class, so we were hoping that after giving them this knowledge and information, that they would hopefully be able to teach a little bit more to the younger students in their school.”

The idea of an empathy module began a year ago, after Anna and Drusa attended Step Up Symposium. Brigette Magee Clifford, the co-founder of Operation Smile Student Programs, had been inspired to pilot this project because of the bullying endured by many children born with cleft — bullying that can leave a permanent impact.

“We can fix a (cleft) lip,” Brigette told the participants, “… but despite the fact that they have had surgeries, they are always going to identify with living with a cleft. It’s part of who they are. So, we need to be respectful of that and to realize that for them it takes some time.”

On their first day of the peace mission, they directed their education solely on identity. And as you’d expect, a fourth-grade group of students were a little hesitant with two two strangers asking them what identity means to them. 

So, Anna and Drusa included icebreakers and interactive activities to build trust with the kids. Soon enough, the students started to volunteer their ideas.

Someone said “identity is what makes you different, and others said it is what you like to do, and everyone had different perspectives on what that was, so it was very interesting,” said Drusa. 

One of the activities included having the students draw one of their classmates and identify all the qualities that made them a good friend. At the end of the activity, Anna and Drusa held up two different student drawings to show that although the two drawings themselves looked different, physically, the qualities that make a good friend were similar. 

They then introduced the book “Wonder,” which many of the students had read. With that, they  introduced Operation Smile to show, as Drusa said, “what matters is what is on the inside, not the appearance.” 

Then the next and final day, empathy and bullying were covered. Scenarios were presented to the students and they were asked how they would feel in those situations and when it came to bullying, how they would approach those situations as both a witness and the one being bullied. 

“I believe empathy is one of the most powerful feelings and being able to connect with kids in order to reassure them and make them feel accepted and a part of the group, especially at school, is truly amazing,” said Step UP participant Lavinia Lucangeli after Anna and Drusa’s presentation. “It also shows how much they can learn, and they are eager to do just that!”

— Story by Madisyn Eppleman, U.S. Leadership Council Representative and U-Voice student storyteller

How You’ve Stepped UP: Meet Renato from Bolivia

Step Up participant Renato Antelo says little Facundo taught him the biggest lesson about Operation Smile.

As a student volunteer with Operation Smile, Renato first met Facundo — or Facu — in 2017. The one-year-old was born with a cleft lip, and Facu’s family had brought him to receive care during Operation Smile’s medical mission in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Renato loved getting to play with happy, smiley Facu, and he spent a lot of time during the mission getting to know Facu’s parents. He even got to guide the family through Operation Smile’s screening process. Together, they cycled through medical stations to ensure Facu was healthy for surgery — and, thankfully, he was. Facu received surgery, and everyone was overjoyed.

This joy doubled over a year later when, during another medical mission at the same site, Facu’s family recognized Renato as he was volunteering. Thrilled to be reunited, they snapped happy selfies together — and, of course, Renato again guided the family as little Facu received continuing care.

“To share time with him and his family, accompany them in the process,” Renato said. “… To see him after months, how he had grown and developed and that his parents remembered me — it really was something very symbolic for me, and it left a mark on me to this day.”

Renato says his bond with this family taught him that, at its core, Operation Smile is about friendship.

“It has taught me to be a person of love, to be more empathic with others to empower myself and develop my own abilities and even others that I did not know,” said Renato, who got involved with Operation Smile when he saw a poster as school in 2015. “It made me a better person, more human. All this knowledge has served me academically and in my daily life. I will always be grateful for that.”

In fact, Renato credits Operation Smile with helping him carve his career path.

“Working on missions I realized the change and potential that a person has as a psychologist, and I fell in love with the vocation,” Renato said. He’s currently studying psychology at the Private University Of Santa Cruz in Bolivia.

For his fellow students who are just starting their own adventure with Operation Smile, Renato shared a little advice: “Take advantage of every moment, participate in all the activities, do not be afraid to deepen friendships, get to know yourself, travel, live the experience to the fullest, because you will be learning in the most human way, the most loving way you can do, and it remains forever.”

About Our Theme: ‘Now More Than Ever’

As we began putting the pieces together for this conference, the Student Programs team reflected on the past year, 2020. Our hearts were heavy when we thought of how many more people are going to need our help once international medical missions – postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic – can safely resume and care for patients in need.

Heavy hearts quickly turned into hope, though, when we thought about you and your attendance at our conference.

To spend your time at Step UP means you’re giving up time with friends and family – and for many of you, you’re sacrificing precious downtime before kicking off another semester. You’re showing the world that you want to make a difference in global health. You’re *Stepping UP* to make life better for our patients using your own unique talents and skills.

It made us think of something we say all the time at Operation Smile: Our student volunteers are our future, and the future is bright.

And as we’re facing the staggering challenges of a pandemic, we realized we need our future – now. We need our student volunteers, now more than ever before, to help us in our mission to help even more patients during this precarious time.

So, this is how we came up with our theme for the 2021 Step UP Symposium, “Now More Than Ever.” You inspired us. We know we can depend on you. We’re looking to you for your creativity and leadership. And we’re thankful that you’re here to help us make a direct impact on the lives of our patients and their families.