A Hampton Roads-based charity is celebrating a milestone. Twenty-five years after their groundbreaking trip to Vietnam, Operation Smile volunteers have just wrapped up a return mission to the country.
The trip included a high school student from Virginia Beach who is part of the tradition of young people taking action to help others.
Two volunteers are chosen for each surgical site. Their job is to teach other young people about basic healthcare, like hygiene and dental care. But they do much more.
Caitlyn Dye first heard about Operation Smile in the 1st grade. By 3rd grade she was hooked.
“Back in 3rd grade, I had a family stay with me from Nicaragua and I went back to Nicaragua in 5th grade and I got to be reunited with the family and I met their dad and he basically told my mom and me how appreciative he was of us and how we changed his child’s life forever,” she says.
Caitlyn is now a junior at First Colonial High School and President of the school’s Operation Smile Club.
She just returned from the 25th anniversary mission to Vietnam with Operation Smile. In a country where her grandfather fought as an American soldier, she went as an American healer and bonded with a young girl named Dwee.
“It was just nice to know that I was able to make her smile before surgery and get it off her mind. After surgery she was really groggy but I got her to smile and it was nice because she was like, ‘I feel more beautiful now,”’ Caitlyn says.
300 volunteers from 23 countries took part in the 25th anniversary trip to Vietnam and surgeries were performed in six cities. The Operation Smile missions have changed the physical appearance of young patients in countries around the world through more than 220,000 surgeries. They also train local doctors to perform the cleft lip and palate surgeries.
But the mission is more than surgery, it’s healing. They open the eyes of young people to new cultures where language and distance are no longer barriers.
“I’ve learned to be much more grateful for what I have. People in third world countries, they have nothing. They just have, living in these little shacks, not always having food for every meal. I have learned to be so appreciative and grateful,” Caitlyn says. “The people that you help will make you feel good because knowing you are helping someone makes you feel good inside.”