When Upper School math teacher Mrs. Marilyn Reiter agreed to sponsor the school’s Operation Smile club in 2008, she didn’t realize the immense impact the club would have for both Moravian Academy students and the world. Although unfamiliar at the time with the mission of Operation Smile, which provides cleft lip and cleft palate repair surgeries to children worldwide, Mrs. Reiter committed to taking the club under her wing after being asked by then-sophomore Lexi Khan ’11.
“I’m amazed at how this club has grown over the years,” stated Mrs. Reiter. “We’re supporting a mission that changes so many lives at a fundamental level. As students become more involved, their enthusiasm and shared joy of empathy is passed on to younger students, and they encourage each other.”
Cleft lips and cleft palates are openings or holes in the lip or the roof of the mouth and they prevent individuals from being able to eat, drink, breathe or brush their teeth properly. As little as $240 helps Operation Smile provide surgery to a child with a cleft condition, which covers travel expenses for essential medical team members, required supplies, and shipping cargo expenses. To raise funds for these surgeries, the students in the club host a wide variety of fundraisers during the school year, including numerous bake sales, sponsored dress down days, dances, Lehigh Valley Phantoms ice hockey outings, smile grams, and more. The club also regularly sells waffles before school in the Melhado Dining Room – thanks to assistance from Head of Dining Services Mrs. Michelle Sheridan. The club also spreads awareness about Operation Smile’s work in chapels, assemblies and community gatherings.
Each summer, several Moravian Academy students apply to attend a week-long International Student Leadership Conference put on by Operation Smile. This conference, held at different universities around the world, helps students develop and strengthen their leadership skills, provides training on how to help those in developing countries, as well as exposes them to different cultures. At the 2018 conference, Moravian’s club was honored as “Outstanding Club of the Year” from among the thousands of clubs worldwide.
“The organization is committed to helping high-school students improve their leadership skills,” shared Mrs. Reiter. “Involvement in Operation Smile helps our students see outside of themselves, participate and practice empathy, and put their own problems into perspective.”
Climbing for a Cause
Ryan Baki ’22 became involved in the Operation Smile club this fall shortly after learning about the medical charity from his father, Dr. Fayez Baki, owner of Keystone Dentistry in Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Said Ryan, “I want to be a dentist when I grow up, like my dad. Operation Smile caught my attention because most of the families the organization helps can’t afford to pay for their child’s surgery. I want to be able to help children with these conditions get the surgeries that they desperately need and ultimately change their lives.”
Looking for ways to support the cause, experienced hikers Ryan and Dr. Baki decided to climb to the peak of Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, all in support of the medical charity. The duo originally hoped to raise $5,900, the elevation of the mountain above sea level in meters- but ended up far exceeding that goal.
Through fundraising efforts and media publicity, the Bakis raised close to $9,000 for Operation Smile and completed the seven-day, 19,000-foot hike in late December 2018.
After making it to the top of the mountain, Ryan reflected, “I felt on top of the world and that I had accomplished something meaningful in my life. Moravian Academy has always taught me to believe in myself and help others in need. This climb was a culmination of both of those things.”
For Upper School students on the fence about joining the Operation Smile club, Ryan advises, “Do it. Take advantage while you have the opportunity to get involved in the club’s events and activities to make a big impact.”
Creating a Global Impact
In recent years, at least one Moravian student per year has participated in an Operation Smile global mission trip – and this year was no exception. Aarti Katara ’19 traveled to Madagascar in September 2018 and Valentina (Tina) Lopez ’19 traveled to the Philippines in February 2019. Both students were co-leaders of the club this year, joining the ranks of many Moravian alumni who have had the opportunity to travel as part of their involvement with Operation Smile.
On these trips, selected high school students accompany surgical teams to clinics and facilities all over the world where the life-changing surgeries are taking place. To be chosen for a mission trip, students must apply to and attend a weekend-long Mission Training Workshop to train with professionals in burn care, oral rehydration therapy, dental hygiene, hand-washing, nutrition, and hands-only CPR.
Over the course of their respective trips, Aarti and Tina applied their training by presenting basic healthcare modules to local populations using posters as visuals. Both students also directly interacted with patients and their families pre- and post-operation, helped to keep up overall patient morale, and even shadowed doctors during select surgeries.
“Learning how to communicate and create connections has been a big part of my life at Moravian,” shared Aarti. “On my trip, connecting with patients motivated and grounded me because I was able to see how people live on the other side of the world. In a few years, I know that I want to go back as a surgeon with Operation Smile to help others and come full circle.”
Prior to traveling to Madagascar, Aarti collected toys, crafts, bubbles and stickers to help calm young patients before surgery. Thanks to support from both Moravian Academy and the wider public, she was able to take two suitcases full of donated goods with her on her trip. Said Aarti, “The whole community really came together and donated whatever they could.”
During her mission trip to the Philippines, Tina worked alongside and spent time with both local and Peace Corps volunteers. She also had the rare opportunity to volunteer with Dr. William Magee, the co-founder of Operation Smile, which was originally founded in the Philippines.
Said Tina, “My favorite part of the trip was interacting with people and learning about different cultures. Empathy makes you human. You need to be able to connect with people and definitely on my mission trip, I was able to relate with patients.”
A rising senior who has been involved in the club since her freshman year, Karilyn Kruklitis ’20 looks forward to her upcoming mission trip to Malawi this summer. Like Aarti and Tina, Karilyn will be teaching health modules, primarily focused on CPR and nutrition, to members of the Malawi community.
For her Comenius Project, an honors independent study program which allows juniors and seniors to design and carry out a research project, Karilyn conducted a comparison study of the cost of cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries in the United States and Madagascar. Karilyn analyzed the factors that can increase the cost of the
procedures, including capital, land, labor and shipping – underlining why the pro-bono services that Operation Smile provides are of utmost importance.
“With the help of [Upper School history teacher] Mr. Eckman, I was able to do an economic breakdown of the surgical procedures,” said Karilyn. “This project allowed me to pursue that interest, while involving my love of Operation Smile.”
The Future is Bright
With involved students, like Karilyn and Ryan, and dedicated faculty sponsor Mrs. Reiter at the helm, Aarti and Tina, who graduated in June, are hopeful that the legacy of the club will continue for years to come.
“The club was so well-presented to me and peers during my freshman year,” stated Aarti. “In a way, Moravian Academy prepared those students to prepare me, as those students were able to showcase their love for the club and I was empowered to be a part of it. I’m thankful to Moravian for teaching me to go out and try new things. Together, Moravian and Operation Smile have shaped me into who I am.”
Concluded Tina, “I’ve realized that volunteering with Operation Smile makes you part of a forever family.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 Moravian Academy Journal.