Collecting Change, Changing Lives

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Thomas Brinckman, right, poses with a his father, Dirk, and young patient during their time as volunteers at the Operation Smile cleft care centre in Bogotá, Colombia. Operation Smile Student Programs photo.

Editor’s Note: Operation Smile Student Programs is challenging its global network of young volunteers to be Smile Change Makers. These safe surgery advocates are collecting change and small bills to help Operation Smile provide free, life-changing surgeries for children born with cleft lip and cleft palate, many of whom have such difficult time eating and drinking that it threatens their lives. Student Programs introduced this campaign during its 26th annual International Student Leadership Conference in July 2017, and the initiative formally launched on World Smile Day, Oct. 6, 2017.

One smile changed everything for Thomas Brinckman.

Many gathered at Operation Smile’s cleft care centre in Bogotá, Colombia, all in hopes of receiving safe, effective and timely surgical care, free of charge. While there, Thomas, an Operation Smile student volunteer, saw a girl with a cleft walk into the room with a smile on her face.

“She could have been one of my classmates,” said Thomas, who's now a high school senior. “And I realised, every day I walk through my high school, I see students who are 16, 17, and they don’t understand how so many so young could be (in need of medical care but face barriers that can keep them from it).

“I told myself I had to do everything I could to change this,” said Thomas, who lives in New Jersey, U.S.

And as a Smile Change Maker with Operation Smile Student Programs, he is doing just that – quite literally. Led by Thomas and fellow co-president Kelly Yeung, members of their Princeton High School Operation Smile club greeted customers outside a local grocery store, where the students raised more than $1,600 for Operation Smile on Oct. 7. alone.

As each surgery costs as little as $240, that amount could bring new smiles to the faces of six people.

“To be a Smile Change Maker is to speak up for (people living with cleft conditions), to make a tangible change – which can be seen every day through the innumerable lives Operation Smile has changed, and continues to change,” Thomas said after the fundraiser.

And just like Thomas, Smile Change Makers all around the world got down to business to mark World Smile Day.

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Operation Smile student volunteers from Rome raised more than 700 euros at a single Smile Change Makers event. Operation Smile Student Programs Photo.

Student volunteers in Rome held a Smile Change Makers soiree at a pizzeria, and in one night they raised more than 700 euros – enough to cover four surgeries.

The club at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, U.S., served up burgers and grill-side fare during a football game, and by charging just one handful of change per customer, the students collected $240.

Operation Smile student volunteer KC Lowther, who studies at the University of South Africa in Johannesburg, sold smiley-face cupcakes at a handful of area shops and a golf club, spreading the word about Operation Smile and tallying up 2,500 rand, or about $180, in the process.

“Being a Smile Change Maker means that you want to see a positive change in the lives of those with cleft conditions and you do everything in your power to make that change possible,” said KC, a second-year law student.

Two game-changing clubs are getting in on the change-making, too.

The first-ever Operation Smile student club – the Happy Club at Norfolk Academy in Norfolk, Virginia – issued stout, creamsicle-orange cups to students and faculty as change banks.

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The Smile Change Maker's Club at PAREF Springdale School in Cebu, Philippines, is the country's first-ever Operation Smile student club. Operation Smile Student Programs photo.

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ first-ever Operation Smile student club isn't just an Operation Smile club – it's the Smile Change Makers Club. This team from the PAREF Springdale School in Cebu launched their Smile Change Makers campaign with a fun video, and they recently held a spirit week of daily, themed activities that concluded with “Smile Swag Friday.” Club member Nathan Ho said they’re about to place change banks in classrooms throughout their school.

Olivia Parlow, who goes to Donovan Catholic School in Toms River, New Jersey, said being a Smile Change Maker is not just about being a fundraiser – it's about being a zealous ambassador for children with born cleft conditions.

“I hope to not only raise a lot of money for this campaign, but also raise awareness about cleft lip and cleft palate,” said the high school sophomore, whose club held a World Smile Day kickoff event at their school. “It is something that I feel not many people know what it is. Not many people know about Operation Smile either, and I hope that through placing jars (for change) in public places with notes attached to them, others can learn about Operation Smile and the amazing gift that they are giving tons of people.”

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Smile Change Makers from Donovan Catholic School (New Jersey, U.S.) are collecting change to help Operation Smile deliver life-changing surgeries to children living with cleft conditions. Operation Smile Student Programs photo.

For Zoe Thornton-Reid of Chester, England, the Smile Change Makers campaign is personal: She was born with a cleft condition, and she's driven to ensure that children everywhere, no matter their situation, have access to the same kind of timely, effective surgical care that she received.



“It feels amazing to actually feel like you are making a change,” said Zoe, whose surgeon, an Operation Smile medical volunteer, introduced her to the organisation. “A change you can actually see – the fact I can give children what I’ve had when they haven’t been able to have it!”

To collect change, she's banking on her the competitive spirit of her Queen's School Chester classmates: The grade that has the most change in their box loses, so students are coming in and dumping change into containers other than their own.

“The campaign is going so, so well – so much better than I ever could have dreamed,” Zoe said about a week after kickoff. “The teachers asked for their own (change) collection box after my assembly, and apparently theirs is getting quite full! All the pupils are really into the sabotaging aspect of my campaign and really enjoy bringing in bags of change and pouring it in the boxes!”

At the San Silvestre School in Lima, Peru, the top Smile Change Maker – or Agente de Cambio in Spanish – at the end of the campaign will have the opportunity to help change lives during an Operation Smile medical mission in a different city. This is a true prize, student leader Manuela Pombo said, because young volunteers in Lima only participate in medical missions there.

Although the Smile Change Makers campaign is, formally, only a month-long effort, the idea of change and what it means – for potential patients, their communities and the world – has inspired encouraged and empowered students on almost every continent to help Operation Smile change lives.

And, as Olivia said, “Being a Smile Change Maker means that I can impact someone’s life so greatly with so little.”

Want to get involved or know someone who might like to be? Learn more about the Smile Change Makers campaign here. Learn more about Operation Smile Student Programs here.

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“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President