Community: Meet International Nonprofit Operation Smile (Cont.)

Interviewer: Ashley Liang & Freya Gulamali; August 1, 2020

Interviewee: Julie Brumana, Western U.S Student Programs Associate @ Operation Smile)

Operation Smile has a very active student programs and student-centered events, including an annual ISLC (Operation Smile).

I also understand that Operation Smile has an active student programs chapter--how has COVID-19 affected any plans you have with the student leaders, such as the regional summits, ISLC, etc., and how can students continue to contribute to their communities?

We have a very strong and decades-long student program, and we have hundreds of clubs throughout the USA and around the globe. This has completely turned on its head, just as it has with our core mission of providing the surgeries, and once again the organization as a whole has been adaptable and ready to learn and expand.

One of the programs that started out right away by students during the stay-at-home lockdown was the Serving Smiles program. The idea was that since students could not directly serve the patients, they wanted to serve the health care workers that are serving COVID-19 patients during this time. With Serving Smiles, students were making connections between restaurants and hospitals, and picking up and providing meals for the frontline healthcare workers. Serving Smiles has spread across 10 states in the United States plus Panama and Paraguay, and has served over 4,400 meals to hospitals. Another program that students have started during the pandemic is the Families 4 Families program. In addition to serving the frontline workers in the hospital, we also have a program that's already provided over 10,000 meals in the form of bags of groceries. Individuals are pairing up with churches or civic organizations to identify families that are being affected by COVID-19 that could use some help buying the groceries and then delivering them through those organizations. Just like everything else in student programs, we use the staff to try to respond to the students and expect our student leaders to help guide us during this pandemic.

"The idea was that since students could not directly serve the patients, they wanted to serve the health care workers that are serving COVID-19 patients during this time."

You are also right in that COVID-19 has affected some of our student events. Every summer for the last 29 years, we've had the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) which brings students from all over the world—normally about 30 countries—for a week of fellowship and leadership training. We were scheduled to do it this summer in Peru, and we had to cancel it for the first time. We're so heartbroken, but we have rescheduled it for next summer 2021 in Peru, which we expect to happen. We also have our regional training at the end of summer and those are going to have to become virtual. We are really relying on social media and our students to let us know how best to engage with and support you. As a whole organization, including our student programs, we will continue to look for ways to serve and fundraise because once our surgical capacity is back up and it's safe, we are going to be roaring back with our surgeries.

What are you most proud of regarding your organization’s response to COVID-19?

I would say I am most proud of the generous nature of our organization at every level. Though Operation Smile knows they are going to need the equipment when it becomes safe to perform surgeries, they are still redirecting essential supplies and equipment to the hospitals to assist in this time of need. Here in the USA, students are still providing meals and doing what they can. Our medical volunteers are not going out on missions at the moment, but they are still helping us with the virtual education and gathering meals for patients in the countries locally. Overall, I'm most proud and impressed with the scope of how we're still able to engage with all of the patients and people that need us during this time. We were able to adapt; we're not just sitting down and like waiting for things to get back to normal. We’re still being really active and creative, which is the core of this organization.

During COVID-19, Operation Smile clubs have taken initiative and started projects such as Serving Smiles, which provides meals to frontline workers (Operation Smile).

What worries you most regarding the effect COVID-19 has/will have on your organization?

Because we work with students, we work on a year-to-year basis, so every year means something very specific to a student. Some of our student members were seniors this year, so they missed the opportunity to come to our ISLC. Thankfully, we do also have lots of University opportunities, but just in terms of student programs, my concern is that missing out on six months or one year in the life of a student will heavily impact them. Students are very time-specific, having to do certain things at certain times so I just want to make sure that I am able to support the students where they are at the time because when a year passes, it passes.

As an organization, I think we're going to really have our hands full. In addition to providing surgeries in all of these countries, we put a lot of work into recruitment of patients. Patients often live in rural areas and are hidden in their homes because they don't want to be out in their community in fear of bullying and other negative reactions. Our volunteers and staff in those countries spend a lot of time knocking on doors and building relationships with families. Families may have never come to a hospital before and they may not trust doctors. Some may have heard that when people go to the hospital, they don't come back; people just go to the hospital when they are very ill and are likely to die. We have to be face-to-face with these families and these communities to continue to build that trust, so I'm concerned that we're going to have a bigger job on our hands since face-to-face interaction is very limited.

"We have to be face-to-face with these families and these communities to continue to build that trust, so I'm concerned that we're going to have a bigger job on our hands since face-to-face interaction is very limited."

What do you believe others can do to help ease problems or contribute to Operation Smile?

I think it's still the same things that it was before COVID-19. We always need funding for everything: from our staff that holds up the whole foundation of the organization to all of the services, even the virtual services that we are providing to patients. Especially once we are able to safely provide surgeries, we're going to have a lot to do. A lot of expenses arise from that. Secondly, we need awareness. One out of 700 births around the world is a child born with a cleft condition. Here in the US, it's taken care of at a very young age so we don't have such an awareness about it, so we need to continue to promote the need for safe surgery for cleft conditions and for all conditions. Access to surgery is very difficult in most of the world—access to safe surgery especially. Thus, others can help by aiding with funding, raising awareness, and just staying informed. Continue to stay engaged with us, pay attention to our social media channels, get on our newsletters—whether it's student programs or Operation Smile. Continuing to stay connected through all of this is how you help. Connect with us, advocate for those that need safe surgery and those who have tough conditions, and funding.

"Access to surgery is very difficult in most of the world — access to safe surgery especially."

What is the greatest lesson we can learn from this outbreak?

Personally, I think that it has taught us that we all need to think outside of ourselves. We all need to realize how interconnected we are as a local community and as a global community. I work for a global organization, but it still blows my mind when I look at our social media or our website and I see pictures of volunteers handing out masks. There is this one particular image that I remember of a man sitting on the street, selling some type of nuts, and the volunteer is handing out masks. It just made me really understand that this is a global thing. Everyone, everywhere, is going through the same thing on some level. I think that really teaches us that we're all interconnected; our actions ripple. Our actions affect everyone around us in some way and then other people's actions ripple back to affect us. Also, we need to be nice and care for each other.

If you are willing to share, how has COVID-19 affected you individually and your family?

Not much, except that my children are bored! I have a high schooler and a middle schooler, and my middle schooler just finished 8th grade, so he did his culmination online and we have a sign in the front yard. He is going to start high school most likely virtually. Los Angeles Unified School District hasn't made its official decision yet, but how do you start high school virtually? Thankfully, we have not had an illness or economic issues in my family; there's just ongoing underlying stress. I keep thinking that a year from now, we are going to look back and think “wow, we got through it”, but right now, sometimes it does not feel that way. It definitely is a historical moment. I remember I was sitting in the car with my daughter talking about social distancing and all these new phrases and words, and she mentioned that they will be in the glossary of the history book in a few years. So, the COVID-19 chapter will have all these glossary terms we are using now.

Are there any other messages you would like to share with our readers?

I have been working in nonprofits for a long time, but I’ve never worked in a nonprofit that gives so much time and energy to students. We are a medical organization, but from the beginning, our founders appreciated the importance that youth play in being the future of the world, being the future of our organization, and building up the leadership for future generations. I believe that too; I think that it’s really great to be a part of the future through you all, and I am thankful for that.