Associate Member Operation Smile: A Catalyst for Increasing Access to Safe Surgery

You may know Operation Smile as the organization that provides new smiles for children with cleft lip and cleft palate. Now with nearly 40 years of expertise, Operation Smile is creating solutions that position it as a catalyst for increasing access to safe surgery in low- and middle-income countries.

To understand what Operation Smile does, it’s important to know two words: palate (as in, the roof of your mouth) and pallet, the flat wooden structure built for transporting items by forklift. The AAM associate member specializes in both, as it distributes supplies and equipment to its medical sites around the world.

Last year, the organization conducted 111 medical programs across 74 sites in 29 countries, providing more than 15,000 patients with free surgical and dental care. Congenital conditions that affect one in every 500 to 750 babies, cleft lip and cleft palate can cause potentially deadly health problems when left untreated as well as painful bullying and isolation due to deep-rooted social stigma.

Faustina, the teen from Ghana highlighted in this blog’s videos, is just one of Operation Smile’s success stories.

We’re thrilled to be part of AAM, says Kendra Davenport, Operation Smile’s chief development officer. Our work wouldn’t be possible without the sustained groundswell of grassroots support from health care professionals.

Founded in 1982 by plastic surgeon William Magee and his wife Kathleen, Operation Smile has grown steadily, thanks in part to longstanding partnerships with corporate sponsors. Because of the ethos of the Magee family (including William Magee III, director of international programs at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles), Operation Smile boasts a culture of committed, compassionate employees, volunteers and donors. Davenport says it’s a rewarding, positive place to work.

The volunteers are incredible, she says. They take significant time off from their medical practices and jobs to go on medical missions and cover much of their travel expenses.

The volunteers get valuable experience as well as the knowledge they’re using their skills to save lives. Davenport describes one surgeon who told her about the time he left his phone at home and felt inconvenienced all day. But then he reflected on what the medical personnel have to endure at the hospital he visited through Operation Smile, and that put this minor annoyance into perspective.

Operation Smile works closely with AAM associate members Direct Relief and Dispensary of Hope to secure equipment and drugs for their missions.

Conducting surgical programs will always be at the core of Operation Smile’s work. But today the organization is leveraging its experience to launch innovative programs to improve the capacity and strengthen the health care systems where they work. This strategy encompasses partnerships with ministries of health as well as training and education programs. On November 8, 2019, Operation Smile’s first Government Health Forum took place in Washington, D.C., convening corporate supporters, government agencies and lawmakers to collaborate on cleft care and global health system strengthening. For more information on taking part, contact Kendra Davenport.

Corporate partner Microsoft is working with Operation Smile on an app to improve postsurgical assessments, as well as efficient transition from paper to electronic medical records. Davenport describes ways that people and companies can help Operation Smile:

  • Donations. These can be directed to countries with a personal meaning for supporters.
  • In-kind gifts. Operation Smile welcomes donations of consumables, equipment and more.
  • Volunteers. You don’t have to be a surgeon to take part in an Operation Smile mission. They also need people to pack Smile Bags, with coloring books, snacks and a hand mirror for young patients.
  • Executive-level support. Expertise in everything from logistics and communications to financial management and operations help make the missions more efficient. Each country we operate in is different, says Davenport. We can’t do it alone.

Read more about AAM Members in Giving, Volunteering and More: How Our Members Show They Care (Part 1) and A Positive Impact: How Our Members Show They Care (Part 2).


Erica Klinger

By Erica Klinger, AAM Marketing Director

Published on April 22,2021

Association for Accessible Medicines


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