Timmy in one of his shirts from Thailand (Courtesy Photo by Timmy Zhu).

Wearing A Smile — Literally

Operation Smile volunteer Timmy Zhu reflects on his journey to becoming an Operation Smile volunteer and how his T-shirt campaign has united student volunteers worldwide.

By Nick Ciuffreda, Student Programs Media Intern

You could say Timmy Zhu wears his heart on his sleeve almost literally. 

A longtime volunteer for Operation Smile, Timmy cares so much about the organization that he’s been wearing an Operation Smile T-shirt every day for two years straight — that’s more than 700 days — with the goal of reaching 1,000 days in a row.

The idea for his “Wearing a Smile” campaign started after he wore Operation Smile shirts for one academic year while completing his undergraduate degree at Ohio State University. 

He felt that wearing Operation Smile shirts was “like I was wearing a big hug” and provided “not only an incredible opportunity for me to give back, but to communicate how much I love Operation Smile.”

Originally, he was just going to wear the shirts every day during his last academic year at Ohio State, so he could spread awareness for the organization and his Operation Smile club on campus. This tallied up to 260 days. 

But, after graduating and starting his master’s at Cornell University, Timmy realized he was still wearing Operation Smile shirts every day. 

That’s when he figured, “If I’m going to wear the shirts every day, might as well launch another campaign.”

As for his choice of 1,000 days being the ending goal, Timmy said, “one, it’s the smallest four digit number and … if you’re going to repeat something, you have to push the envelope.”

So far throughout his journey, Timmy has received shirts from over a dozen countries including Canada, Vietnam, Italy, Ireland, Honduras, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Mexico. He has also received many shirts from clubs all over the United States. 

One of his favorites in particular is one that the Vice President of the Ohio State Operation Smile club gave him as a graduation gift (pictured above). 

On the front is the club logo, Operation Smile globe, and other icons from fundraisers Timmy helped to run. On the back is Timmy’s last name, Zhu, with the number 1 so that it looks like a sports jersey. 

Timmy got involved with Operation Smile when he was in high school. Like many high schoolers, Timmy was searching for a place where he felt loved by the people around him.

He found Operation Smile in 2011, took part in the organization’s International Student Leadership Conference, and has been a volunteer with the organization ever since. 

After graduating high school, Timmy founded the Operation Smile club at Ohio State, where he earned his bachelor’s in economics. 

He then went on to get his master’s in computer science from Cornell University, where he also became a staple in their Operation Smile club. 

Currently, Timmy works for Startup Tree and is still a member of the executive board for Cornell’s Operation Smile club. He has spoken at a few Operation Smile conferences, his most recent being the Step Up! University Symposium in January 2020.

At the time of this article, Timmy has surpassed 730 days of wearing Operation Smile shirts! You can keep track of his progress by following him on Instagram @timmyzhu100

Nick is studying business at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He’s been involved with Operation Smile since he was in the Lawrence High School club in New Jersey and attended a medical mission in the Dominican Republic in 2019.