British students spread smiles in the Philippines


In February 2018 a group of five school pupils from across the United Kingdom travelled to Cebu City, Philippines, to join a team of volunteers serving on Operation Smile’s international medical mission at the Visayas Community Medical Centre.

The journey began for this group some seven months prior, when they attended the International Student Leadership Conference and completed the Mission Training Workshop that prepared them for the role they were to play in Cebu. Every year Operation Smile takes a number of school and university students to its mission sites, where they not only get to see the work the charity does first-hand, but also play a key role in educating our patients and their families through a variety of healthcare presentations.

After preparing their presentations, collecting donations of toys, bubbles, colouring books and toothbrushes, the team were finally ready to go and you could sense the excitement amongst them as we checked in at Heathrow airport. The journey to Manila was a long one, but after a quick sleep on arriving at the hotel, it was time to meet the rest of the team and start the final journey to Cebu. At this point it all became real for the student team; they were talking to plastic surgeons, anaesthetists, doctors, nurses, speech therapists, people on their first Operation Smile mission and others on the twentieth, and you could see them basking in the atmosphere of the mission long before they met the patients for the first time.

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Photo: Zute Lightfoot

After arriving in Cebu the team had the afternoon to settle in before the first meeting ahead of screening the following day. Screening day was the first opportunity to meet the patients, with hundreds arriving in hope of being selected for surgery. The hospital courtyard was abuzz as volunteers set up stations and began the task of ensuring everyone who had come to the mission received a full medical evaluation.

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Photo: Zute Lightfoot

Throughout the day the student team made sure all the patients were relaxed and having fun, despite the long wait in the blistering heat. The team took the opportunity to present the healthcare modules they had been trained in to the crowds of people who were delighted to learn about topics including general and dental hygiene, burn care and prevention, oral rehydration therapy, nutrition and hands only CPR. With the help of a great group of local Filipino students the team was able to ensure they spoke to hundreds of people on screening day alone.

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Photo: Zute Lightfoot

At the end of screening day the patients who would be selected for surgery were told when they would be receiving their free operation, and those who we couldn’t operate on this time were given an explanation as to why not (some weren’t healthy enough to undergo anaesthetic, others too young) and guided as to the next steps to take and how Operation Smile could help them in the future.

After a team day spent on the beach on Sunday, Monday quickly came round and with it so too the first day of surgery. This was an exciting time for the whole team, who were able to seamlessly work together and ensure that all of the patients were cared for without any issues arising, and amazing feat for a group of people who had known each other for only a matter of days.

Over the next four and a half days the student team spent their time across all areas of the mission. Patients would arrive at the hospital the afternoon before their surgery, where they would spend the evening on the pre-op ward. This was a large room accommodating roughly 20 patients, which meant there was often a lot going on! There were always children to play with in pre-op, and the student team spent a lot of time here throughout the mission. The post-op ward was rather quieter, but here the students could catch up with patients they had seen go through pre-op and surgery, and see their new smiles for the first time.

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Photo: Zute Lightfoot

As well as spending a lot of time playing with children (before and after their surgery) and presenting healthcare modules, the student team were also welcomed into the operating room where they got to see cleft lip and cleft palate surgery stood next to the surgeon performing it. To get the chance to see this life-changing moment, and witness the skill and dedication of an international medical volunteer team from the frontline is something very few teenagers could hope to experience.

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Blessy with her mum and Abi Bannatyne. Photo: Zute Lightfoot

The team were incredibly lucky to see a very special, unique surgery performed on a patient they had all spent time with the previous day. Blessy, a very shy young girl, was born with a bilateral cleft that left little differentiation between her moth and her nose. Blessy had also been born with a sixth finger on one of her hands, and during her surgery the surgeons decided they could use the cartilage from her extra digit to restructure her nose. After seeking permission from Blessy’s mother, the team got to work and Blessy’s surgery was completed shortly after. To see this transformation take place before their own eyes is an experience that is unique to Operation Smile Student Programmes and something that will stay with the student team for the rest of their lives. To then see the patients and their families the following day and be present as they get used to their new smile was equally rewarding.

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Photo: Zute Lightfoot

Operation Smile’s Co-Founders, Bill and Kathy Magee were also present for the latter part of the mission, returning to the country where they started Operation Smile some 35 years ago. The student team were able to spend a lot of time with the Magees, learning from them and being inspired by their contagious passion. They even got the chance to accompany the Magees, along with some of the Filipino student volunteers, to Cebu international School where they joined to give a talk on Operation Smile and the role students play within the organisation. The student team have continued to work with CIS since returning to the UK and are guiding them through the process of setting up an Operation Smile club at the school, one of over 1,000 worldwide. Much like the opportunity to witness surgery and teach healthcare modules, the chance to meet and forge such strong relationships with people from all over the world is a very special aspect of the mission experience and one the UK student team really cherished.

Surgery week was over all too quickly, and after a final party with the entire volunteer team and many Operation Smile supporters from across the Philippines, it was time to make the long journey home. Over the four and a half days of surgery the volunteer team operated on 111 patients, changing not only their lives but the lives of their families as well. The student team presented potentially life-saving healthcare modules to hundreds of people, and witnessed every aspect of the medical mission from patient registration right the way through to them departing the hospital. Small moments like carrying a child from recovery to be reunited with their mother are likely to stay with the team for the rest of their lives, and the week was full of occasions and interactions just like this.

The overwhelming feeling as we made the long journey back to London was one of pride and happiness at what had been achieved,  however there was also a sense of sadness that the mission was over as new friends had to say goodbye and head off to their respective homes. The team was made up of volunteers from the Philippines, the UK, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Kenya, Morocco and Australia, and each will have friends in all of these countries should they visit them in the future.

Now back in the UK the team is working hard on plans to start an Operation Smile club at Cebu International School and continue to raise vital funds and awareness within their own communities. They are all planning to give talks sharing their mission experience with their classmates at their own schools as well as other schools and community groups in their areas, as we hope to share our story with more and more young people across the UK and beyond.

To find out more about how your school or your children can get involved in Operation Smile’s Student Programmes, visit this page or contact

To read the student team’s blog from Cebu, click 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