I’m in Mexico with my family. We are volunteering our time for an Operation Smile medical mission.  I’ve been trying to make this trip for years, and we’re finally here.

I didn’t imagine the first day of summer would be spent here, but I believe it’s exactly where we need to be right now.

After Rain graduated from kindergarten we hit the airport with my oldest daughter and my husband David.  I brought with me an open mind and heart, but had no idea what to expect. I hoped to do my part for an organization that I have been supporting for four years but I also hoped to teach my children about the meaning and importance of community service.  

It’s a hard lesson to teach, especially to a six-year-old and a teenager.  The many conversations that we’ve had pale in comparison to the reality of getting our hands in it and feeling the energy of people in need. With the help of thousands of volunteers around the globe and financial donations, Operation Smile provides cleft lip and palate surgeries to children in need.  

On Day 1, we volunteered at a hospital in Guadalajara.  By the time we arrived at the hospital, hundreds of families gathered from near and far with hopes that their child might be selected to have a corrective facial surgery.

Growing up in America, I had never seen a child with a cleft lip, and neither have my children. I prepared my children as best I could for the experience that we would immerse ourselves in.  We watched many videos about OS missions around the world.  We talked about how many of the children they would meet have been mistreated and shunned by their communities because of their facial deformities.

The facts:

  • Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects that occur when a baby’s lip or mouth do not form properly.

  • Every 3 minutes, a child is born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.

  • A baby born with a cleft has twice the odds of dying before celebrating their first birthday

  • It takes as little as 45 minutes to repair a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.

  • Operation Smile has provided over 200,000 free cleft surgeries to children in need

Once inside the sea of unique children, mine were the only minorities and the ones who were in fact different. You cannot imagine the scene and the energy in the building. I will never know what it is like to not be able to provide my children with their medical needs.  My empathy and compassion for the families I met today is indescribable.  I could only imagine what the mothers around me were feeling, and how their hope had bought them to this place.

Helping hands

I was just a volunteer.  Our job was to assist in screening approximately 250 families who were hoping that their child might be a candidate for surgery. Rain and Neriah spent the first day passing out stickers, blowing bubbles and entertaining children and their siblings.

David and I assisted in moving families through the paperwork process and looking for priority children.  The more we saw, the more beautiful they became and the less we focused on their deformities.

Their eyes captivated me and soon I didn’t notice the missing parts of their smiles. Rain’s heart was beating, as was mine.  She had never seen children like this in person... she and Neriah embraced them all and wanted to make them smile. Rain said, “Those children are just like us except they have a different face.  Please help them get fixed Mommy.”

"I struggle to share this experience because there are no words to describe the emotions we felt today."

I locked eyes with an 11-month-old boy named Angel.  His mother was eight months pregnant and his father was close by.  David and I assisted them to move quickly through the medical paper work process and waited all day for tests, lab results and doctor meetings to determine if Angel was eligible for surgery.  Angel was turned down at three months old because he was not strong enough for surgery.  His parents returned today to give him another chance.

When the doctors announced that he was cleared and they were ready to schedule his operation, it was like winning the lottery. I can only imagine what his mother felt and empathized with every other mother praying for similar news for her child.  

David and I committed to stay by Angel’s side through surgery and recovery and see him through every step until he was ready to go home. His father asked us why we were so invested in Operation Smile and why we cared so much about his son. I could only express that I understood the medical possibilities for children born with facial deformities and I compassionately wanted to help... nothing more.

But somehow I felt connected to Angel and I felt the fear and nervous energy from his family.   How brave they were to trust us with his life, and how desperate they were to change it forever. I could see by the way his mother looked at him that every inch was loved, but I could also feel her pain and guilt for what she and many other mothers of cleft lip children often blame themselves for.  We don’t have enough research today to fully understand why children are born with cleft lips. 

A sense of gratitude

I kept imagining he was my own child and I was so grateful to be able to assist in this life change for him. I was honored to be part of a trusted group that would forever change Angel’s life. I compassionately bonded with his mother and I hurt for her and her son.

On surgery day, the walk down the OR corridor felt like an eternity and I wished never to see mother and son separate.  But I knew that Angel would be passed to one of the world's leading surgeons who would offer him the best care possible. I prayed and prayed for his protection and reassured his parents in my broken Spanish that everything would be beautiful. His mother handed Angel to David and he brought the baby to the surgical team.

David and I stayed with Angel in the OR and watched every meticulous incision. In less than two hours, Angel went from a disfigured, yet still adorable boy; to a boy who would have the ability to smile for the first time the way most of us take for granted as a birth right.

I struggle to share this experience because there are no words to describe the emotions we felt today.

When the doctor handed me Angel and I cuddled him to the recovery room, I kept whispering in his ear. "You are so strong, and special and beautiful." 

I couldn't wait to get him back to his mother. I held his and and felt so blessed to be part of his journey and so relieved that the cruelest part of his life was over.

In about a half hour, he woke up and it was time to reunite with his parents. I cannot describe the rest of his story but this photo will hopefully speak louder than a thousand words:

I watched a miracle today. I felt the power of selflessness in the presence of the Operation Smile team.  You cannot imagine what community service is like until you live it, but it changed my life forever and opened my heart in a whole new way. I feel a moral obligation to give back and do something important, but I had no idea how much I would get back from the experience.

Woven into the emotions that flowed this week were my own needs to teach my children how to give.  I do not want my children to grow up to be self-centered. I only hope that they will take away the joy and fulfillment from experiencing what it is like to help another person. I also hope that they will feel proud and understand what an important and impactful thing they did.

Rain has decided to give all of her hard-earned piggy bank funds to OS after realizing that every little thing you do counts. My 13-year-old asked if we could volunteer for a medical mission every summer. Rain also asked me to help all of the children she met in Mexico. Tearfully, all I could reply is, “I will try.”

We visited Angel and his family the next morning and respectfully asked if we could stay in touch. 

I want to know who he will grow up to be.  I wonder if he will ever realize how many people rallied together to change his life, and how brave his parents were.  I wonder if he will carry that energy with him.  I would like to say thank you to him one day for changing my family forever. We will always remember how his misfortune touched our lives.

“Love by definition is self-sacrifice. Love is a decision to make someone else’s problem your own.” - Dr. Bill Magee

*This article was originally published on ModernMom.com