Operation Smile celebrates 40 years of helping children with fissures

According to the Hampton Roads-based organization, it’s estimated that globally, 500 to 750 children are born with a cleft condition.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It was just a learning day for Chris Brooks, a sophomore at Oscar High School, and it wasn’t what he expected.

“Very inspiring,” he said. “It’s not like we hear fake stories.”

On Monday, students from Oscar Smith High School toured the headquarters of Virginia Beach-based nonprofit Operation Smile during a field trip to the organization’s interactive learning center.

But a day of learning for students like Brooks equals a lifetime of work for Kathy Magee.

“It never stops,” Magee said.

Forty years ago, Magee and her husband, Dr. Bill Magee, set out on a journey to help fix cleft lip and palate for children in the Philippines. After their first trip, they decided to come back to help the families they hadn’t been able to on their first trip.

“We were able to do about 40 surgeries knowing full well there were about 300 kids sitting in front of us,” Magee said.

Each year, these efforts have intensified to the point where the organization has now provided more than 350,000 surgeries to repair cleft lip and palate and counting.

“More kids would come from different provinces. They are spreading their word,” Magee said.

A cleft lip and palate is a facial condition caused by a child’s mouth not closing completely during the early stages of pregnancy. It is estimated globally that every 500 to 750 children are born with a cleft condition.

The organization not only strives to help children internationally, but also to connect with children locally.

On their journey, the Oscar Smith sophomores read individual cases and patients affiliated with Operation Smile, learning about real-world patients who suffered from a fissure.

“I didn’t expect them to have so many problems in their communities because of their condition,” said Grace Gripka.

“Students start to feel everything that goes on in a mission,” Magee said.

Although 40 years of service cannot be summed up in a single day, Magee finds that trips like this are always a busy day.

“I think the information was hopeful for me because even though there was solid information presented, I think sometimes that’s where you need hope,” Gripka said.

As part of their 40th anniversary, Operation Smile reached out to 13News Now to help them thank the surrounding Hampton Roads community.

You can catch more stories about the operation’s efforts in the coming months or visit the nonprofit’s website at click here.

Christine E. Phillips