Operation Smile, Inc.
Operation Smile, Inc.
6435 Tidewater Drive
Norfolk, Virginia 23509
Telephone: (757) 321-7645
Toll Free: (888) 677-6453
Fax: (757) 321-7660
Web site: http://www.operationsmile.org
Revenues: $43.8 million (2004)
NAIC: 813410 Civic and Social Organizations
Operation Smile, Inc. is a private, nonprofit volunteer medical services organization that provides free reconstructive surgery and related healthcare to children of developing countries and the United States, with special attention to cleft lips and cleft palates. In addition, Operation Smile provides medical training to physicians and other healthcare professionals around the world in order to encourage self-sufficiency. Through these efforts, the organization brings together healthcare professionals within the public and private medical sectors to provide volunteer care in order to improve the quality of life of the children treated by Operation Smile.
Humble Beginnings: 1967–82
Bill Magee intended to be a dentist. The son of a general practitioner and one of 12 children, he had modest plans for his life. His high school sweetheart, Kathy, planned to be a nurse. "We had pretty conventional goals," Bill said, "We thought we'd get married, have a bunch of kids and live in New Jersey."
After getting married in 1967, Bill and Kathy moved to Maryland so that Bill could finish his last year of dental school. Kathy became a public health nurse, working with those in the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore. Then Bill was introduced to facial surgery and was intrigued by it. "I liked the artistry," he said, "Moving people's jaws around; making an attractive face." Over nine years of study followed, including advanced studies in Switzerland, Germany, and Scotland. In addition, he was awarded the Hays-Fulbright Scholar Grant and received training under Dr. Paul Tessier, the father of craniofacial surgery. After his studies, Magee and his wife settled down in Norfolk, Virginia, presumably to begin the life they had initially planned. Bill began a private practice, while also performing surgery for economically challenged children in Virginia. In so many ways, they had come far from their working-class neighborhood in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Nonetheless they had no idea what lay ahead and how much further they would be stretched.
In 1982, a trip to the Philippines changed Bill and Kathy's life forever. The trip consisted of a group of American healthcare professionals volunteering their time in order to operate on children who were suffering from cleft lips and cleft palates. Bill's intent for the trip was to learn. "I wanted to become better as a surgeon," recalled Bill, "but what I saw changed my life." During the five-day trip, with the surgical team working 16-hour days, nearly 150 children in three cities were operated on. They had changed the lives of these children and their families, but Bill Magee felt wracked with guilt. Each operation took less than an hour, a fact that he was struck with every day when taking his lunch break. In the time it took him to eat his lunch, another child's life could be completely changed. For the good they had done, the experience was heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting. "Everywhere we turned, there was a sea of deformities," Kathy said. "People pushed their babies at us, tugged at our sleeves with tears in their eyes and begged us to help their children."
Arriving back in Norfolk, the question was not whether to continue helping those children in need, but how to do so. They gave their undertaking a name, Operation Smile, and decided that the best way to start was with a grassroots effort. Their flame of excitement quickly lit a fire and soon Operation Smile became a citywide mission. There were bake sales and potluck dinners, and, armed with donated surgical supplies and equipment, the Magees arrived back in Manila with 18 volunteer doctors, nurses, and technicians. This time they were able to help 200 children, but hundreds more remained on the waiting list and thousands more were just beginning to hear of their efforts. Although it seemed nearly impossible, the Magees were determined to return again. It was clear that Operation Smile was to become a permanent endeavor.
Dead tired, the Magees were spurred ahead by the visions of those who waited for them to return. They went about asking for help. They searched for volunteers for the missions, surgeons, nurses, dentists, speech therapists, psychologists, and physical therapists. They searched for private donors and corporate sponsors and help from every organization they could think of. The goals of the mission spread by word-of-mouth. The astonishing fact that each cleft lip and palate surgery cost about $250 and took only about 45 minutes to perform moved many people. The volunteers that they had taken on their second trip went home with their own stories of those whom they had helped and the hundreds more waiting to be helped. The response was overwhelming.
Dream Growing into Reality: 1982–2002
Many prominent companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Abbott Laboratories, committed to providing long-term gifts-in-kind. These donations, consisting of pharmaceuticals, surgical instruments, and medical supplies, were not only appreciated, but were inherent to the success of each mission. In 2005, Operation Smile was in need of anesthesia for trips to Lima, Peru. Abbott Labs quickly donated the needed medicine and sent a representative to witness how the product contributions benefited the children treated by Operation Smile. In addition, the company donated an annual supply worth about $500,000.
Service organizations also quickly became an integral part of Operation Smile's success. Groups such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs raised money for missions and, according to Operation Smile, donated many personal hygiene products, quilts, toys, and hospital gowns. Members of Rotary International also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars of support over the years, as well as giving countless hours of time.
On one of the first missions, Bridgette Magee, Bill and Kathy's daughter, accompanied them. Touched by Bridgette's compassion and unique strength on the mission, Kathy asked her daughter and her daughter's friend, Danny Rosen, to host a fundraiser. They would be raising money for the school in the Filipino community that they had served in. Together, Bridgette and Danny were able to assemble a group of students willing to give their time and efforts to children in need. This group collected money and books for the school. Far surpassing their original goals, they raised enough funds to build an entire wing on the school. In the grassroots tradition of Operation Smile, word spread of this student group and quickly other groups were formed around the world. Thousands of high school and college students created Student Associations in the United States, Asia, Africa, and Latin America and, according to Operation Smile, "annually contributed approximately $400,000 to the surgical costs of children, as well as donating hundreds of toys and school supplies for the patients and their families."
In 1996, Operation Smile received the first Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, a $1 million donation. According to Management Review, the Hilton Prize was about one-quarter of Operation Smile's annual cash budget at the time. "We were really humbled by [the Hilton Prize]. There were a large number of major organizations in the world that had applied for it," said Bill Magee. "I've often said that Operation Smile is like a funnel, and at the top of the funnel are literally thousands of people—many of whom never have a name—and as the funnel narrows, it comes down to an operating table with a surgeon, anesthesiologist and a nurse." Magee explained that the prize would allow the organization to offer medical care to more than 17,500 youths.
In 1999, Operation Smile completed the largest ever surgical mission dedicated to correcting and treating cleft lips and cleft palates. The mission, called World Journey of Hope '99, brought "3,000 volunteers to 18 countries to treat more than 5,000 children," according to Operation Smile. Medical technology companies such as Becton, Dickinson & Company donated items including catheters, ACE bandages, and surgical instruments. "Supporting this journey is one way we continue our strong tradition of commitment to meeting the health and medical needs of communities around the world," said Clateo Castellini, president, chairman, and CEO of Becton, Dickinson. Operation Smile was then able to donate medical and educational equipment to each of the host countries in an effort to encourage better healthcare.
Unfortunately, also in 1999, Operation Smile faced some anonymous allegations regarding the charity's management and the quality of its medical care. Prompted by the death of a patient in China and charges of shoddy surgical practices, the organization underwent an independent review. According to The New York Times, "the charity came under increasing criticism from volunteers, members of its board and foreign doctors, who said the charity was practicing assembly-line medicine by putting volume ahead of patient safety." In early 2000, Operation Smile acknowledged that there had been some improper oversight, and promised its worldwide chapters "sweeping changes." Amid some controversy, the organization continued its missions.
Throughout the world, Operation Smile volunteers to repair childhood facial deformities while building public and private partnerships that advocate for sustainable healthcare systems for children and families. Together, we create smiles, change lives, heal humanity.
The year 2000 brought some exposure for Operation Smile and Bill Magee in the Information Technology (IT) industry. Speaking at the World Congress 2000 on Information Technology (WCIT), Magee lobbied for the use of IT within the medical services world. The Central News Agency (Taiwan) quoted Magee as saying that Operation Smile "has already conducted 'long-distance, cross-continent' craniofacial surgical procedures through the medium of television conferencing and the Internet." Magee noted that several surgical procedures had been performed in Cambodia by local surgeons with direction from plastic surgeons in the United States. The direction was received via a broadband Internet system. Magee also stated that he planned to create an online college for medical personnel in underdeveloped countries in the hopes that through Internet teaching, they would be able to "upgrade their practices." Magee's speech was well-received, and, according to the New Straits Times, "captured the hearts of his audience."
20th Anniversary and Beyond
In 2002, Operation Smile celebrated its 20th anniversary, marking it with a trip to the Philippines. The anniversary mission involved four sites, including the site of the original mission in 1982. Since its inception, the operation had expanded to cover many other cities in that country as well as outreach to 19 other nations.
Over the next years, the Magees' vision continued to grow much in the way it was begun. The grassroots efforts that were so much a part of the operation's beginning continued to be an essential aspect of its continuation. In 2003, hikers from Atlanta, Georgia, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in an effort to raise $100,000 for Operation Smile. Student groups had bake sales and car washes with the belief that every little bit helped. Women's groups sewed hospital gowns and held Bingo nights. On a larger scale, Sephora introduced a lip balm whose net proceeds benefited Operation Smile.
In 2005, a man named Jeffrey Kramer wrote and directed a film called Smile. The movie was loosely based on the work done by Operation Smile. Kramer stated that the film was fiction, but, in his words, "based on 80,000 true stories." Some of the film's proceeds were slated to be donated to Operation Smile, but, "more importantly," Kathy Magee said, "is the inspiration the film could evoke in young people." According to her, "they become volunteers for the future." That year, Operation Smile could proudly state that "more than 90,000 children have been treated by thousands of volunteers in 25 countries and more than 10,000 healthcare professionals have been trained."
According to the Cleft Palate Foundation, one of every 700 newborns born in the United States is affected by cleft lip and/or cleft palate. However, there were very few studies indicating the amount of children born with such defects in countries such as the Philippines and Iraq. Regardless of the numbers, Operation Smile vowed that "the promise Bill and Kathy Magee made years ago will not be fulfilled until every child with a correctable facial deformity is given a chance to smile."
- Operation Smile is founded by Dr. William and Kathleen Magee.
- Operation Smile receives the first Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
- World Journey of Hope '99 mission commences.
- Operation Smile celebrates 20th anniversary.
- Movie Smile is released.
Abelson, Reed, "Charity Promises Sweeping Changes After Review," The New York Times, April 12, 2000, p. C1.
Blaney, Retta, "Dr. William P. Magee, Jr.—Smile Maker," Spirituality & Health, Fall, 1999.
Brazino, Joyce, "Smiles on Kids' Faces Match Those in Volunteer Hearts," Nursing Spectrum, April 7, 2005.
Briggins, Angela, "Where There's a Will …," Management Review, October, 1996, p. 6.
Lacayo, Richard, "No One Will Ever Laugh at Me Again," People Weekly, Fall, 1991, pp. 18+.
Moore, Anne, "Giving Children Smiles: Dr. William Magee," ToDoInstitute.org , September 13, 2004.
Simpson, Elizabeth, "Norfolk-Based Charity Gets a Boost from Movie 'Smile'," Virginian-Pilot, August 12, 2005.
Wackerman, Daniel T., "OpSmile," America, August 31, 1996, p. 4.