Celebrating National Mentoring Month: Our Volunteers Create Lasting Impacts

Volunteer surgeons Drs. Wafaa Mradmi of Morocco, left, Rocio Trujillo of Ecuador, Souad Terrab of Morocco and Saloua Ettalbi of Morocco during our all-female medical mission in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

While the world faces new challenges, it’s vital that Operation Smile and our community of volunteers continue looking ahead and remain focused on working toward a brighter future for the patients and families we serve. 

Throughout January, we’re celebrating National Mentoring Month and recognising the medical and non-medical volunteers who enhance our world and strengthen our ability to reach more patients through mentoring the leaders of tomorrow.

During our cleft surgeon training programme in Madagascar, observers Drs. Briand Michel Rakotomanga, left, and Ravaka Ny Aina Rakotorahalahy, third from the left, watch as Dr. Lora Mae de Guzman of the Philippines operates. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Operation Smile changes the lives of children around the world with safe, effective and timely surgery thanks to the help of medical volunteers, partnerships, donors and devoted student volunteers.

It’s through training and mentorship programmes that our volunteer instructors have an opportunity to become mentors themselves, passing on their knowledge, passion and expertise they’ve gained as volunteers to students who will lead future generations for years to come.

Celebrating these stories presents an opportunity to spread positive messages, enact change in the countries where we work and encourage more people to join in our efforts to provide safe surgery and exceptional medical care.

Team photo on the second day of screening for Operation Smile's Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation medical mission at Hospital Al Farabi in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Many of our female volunteers serve in pivotal roles, delivering high-quality surgical and multi-disciplinary care to patients affected by cleft. Last year, they were celebrated during our first international medical mission comprised entirely of women: Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation.

The mission brought together dentists, surgeons, nurses, biomedical technicians and others to share knowledge and inspire one another.

Members of the team engaged in training and mentorship activities, including an innovative cleft surgery simulation workshop for plastic surgery residents. The education components of the mission provided enrichment opportunities for female physicians that might not otherwise be available to them.

These simulations not only enhanced skills and empowered the medical professionals involved, but they also acted as another step toward these women one day becoming credentialed volunteer surgeons for Operation Smile.

“On average, an Operation Smile medical mission team is comprised of 60 percent female volunteers,” said Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-Founder and President. “We already know that our work simply wouldn’t be possible without their talent, generosity and compassion.”

Participating in the Serving Smile programme, Operation Smile student volunteers deliver meals to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. Operation Smile photo.

When COVID-19 introduced us to a new normal, our student programmes manager in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Pete Hansen, launched the Serving Smiles pilot programme, which underscored the power of rallying young people to support a cause.

His student volunteers partnered with local restaurants to bring meals to healthcare professionals caring for patients in local hospitals.

This inspired student volunteers to serve their communities by bringing much-needed business to family-owned eateries in addition to fuelling healthcare professionals battling COVID-19 on the frontlines.

“Even in the worst of times, Operation Smile finds ways to give back and support communities globally and locally,” said actress Kate Walsh. “I’m proud of the organisation and its newly launched Serving Smiles programme, which involves donating thousands of meals to hospitals. This effort feeds the soul and spirit of our healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight. It’s a kind gesture that shows gratitude and appreciation for those putting their life on the line to protect ours.”

Members of the cook stove team speak to Holly Zoeller over Skype during their training at Operation Smile Global Headquarters in January 2020. Photo: Bethany Bogacki.

Our student programmes provide young volunteers with the opportunity to spread awareness, raise funds and educate others on medical missions.

These students often come back as mentors who are inspired to spearhead ideas such as the Cook Stove Project.

Our partners in research found a potential relationship between maternal smoke inhalation from an open-flame cook stove top and an increased risk of a child being born with a cleft condition.

A group of student volunteers took the initiative to the next level by raising money that will fund new cooking stoves for low- and middle-income countries like Chiapas, Mexico.

One of the volunteers, Holly Zoeller, began her journey with Operation Smile in high school when she travelled to Madagascar to educate young patients on the fundamentals of healthcare.

As a James Graham Brown Fellow at the University of Louisville, Holly used her grant money to continue her work with Operation Smile to provide children with safe surgery and medical care.

She pitched her cook stove idea to our student programmes team and soon found herself partnering with InfraRural, an organisation that specialises in building and installing wood-burning stoves.

Holly and her team’s efforts show the impact inspiration can have on communities around the world.

Volunteer clinical coordinator Doreenlove Serwaa of Ghana shares a special moment with a patient after surgery during Operation Smile's first local mission to Koforidua. Ghana. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

As a Ghanaian nurse, Doreenlove Serwah relies on the courage and collaboration of her team to ensure the safety and care of every patient she meets.

In 2016, she joined our team and volunteered as a recovery room nurse devoted to providing care and support to patients and their families after surgery.

Doreenlove quickly transitioned from student to teacher when she became an instructor for American Heart Association basic and paediatric advanced life support courses.

Even then, Doreenlove felt motivated to do more.

Ready to harness her skills as an educator and a nurse, Doreenlove sought out the position of clinical coordinator.

“The clinical coordinator role is integral and paramount in the planning and execution of a mission,” she said. “Through that, I’ve discovered capabilities I didn’t know I had.”

Doreenlove went on to mobilise teams of volunteers coming from all around the world.

“Volunteering with Operation Smile paved the way for me to explore and use my leadership qualities,” Doreenlove said. “I’ve become a better nurse and a mentor to many.”

Our volunteers may offer different skillsets and come from different backgrounds, but they all share the same motivation to give back to their communities and inspire the next generation through compassion and education.

We nurture leadership and encourage the celebration of all volunteers during National Mentoring Month and throughout the year. We hope these powerful stories will inspire and empower the next generation of advocacy-minded leaders to enact positive changes on a global scale.

Help us to continue keeping our promise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.

Volunteer dentist Dr. Hanan Elayyan smiles wide at 1-year-old Bissan for their surgery during Operation Smile's medical mission to Amman, Jordan. Photo: Jasmin Shah.