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New University club raises funds, awareness for cleft lip and cleft palate

| Friday, March 5, 2021

A group of Notre Dame students in the new Operation Smile Club are harnessing the power of $240 to change children’s lives.

Notre Dame Operation Smile Club is rooted in Operation Smile, an international non-profit organization that works to raise funds for surgical costs and boost awareness for children that have cleft lip and cleft palate in underserved countries. With a $240 donation, Operation Smile is able to fund one surgery and significantly improve a child’s life.

Sophomore Isabella Gomez, co-founder and co-president of the Notre Dame Operation Smile Club started the organization this year with her partner, junior Anna Volanth. Last semester, Gomez and Volanth filed separate applications to open an Operation Smile Club and decided to join forces, Gomez said.

The club held its first event, a Valentine’s Day candy gram sale, last month. Gomez said she was happy the sale raised enough to cover the cost of one child’s surgery.

Gomez, born and raised in Venezuela, learned about Operation Smile after seeing its direct impact in her home country.

“I am very interested in the disparities and accessibility of healthcare in different countries,” Gomez said. “The change in healthcare systems drew my attention, and I remembered the amazing work [Operation Smile] did back home for people that we actually knew and were in our communities.”

Like Gomez, many of the club’s members are international students who participated in Operation Smile in their different home countries.

Senior Nicolás Muñoz Olaso, the public relations and awareness chair for the club, lives in Paraguay, another country Operation Smile serves. In his eight years volunteering for the organization, Muñoz Olaso has participated in seven medical missions.

Muñoz Olaso said serving as a student educator in Tamale, Ghana was his most transformative mission.

Courtesy of Nicolás Muñoz Olaso
Muñoz Olaso, pictured with an Operation Smile patient, has been working with the organization for eight years.

“This was probably the most incredible experience of my life,” Muñoz Olaso said. “It took me out of my comfort zone, and I was able to experience the reality of these people and the conditions they live in.”

In Ghana, Muñoz Olaso said he educated patients’ families and students at local schools on various health modules. Although he is not a medical professional, Muñoz said he helped patients and doctors by assisting with medical charts, distributing food and water and completing other tasks around the hospital. He was even able to enter the operating room and observe the doctors creating new smiles firsthand.

“In only 45 minutes and for $240, Operation Smile can change the lives of people forever,” Muñoz Olaso said. “I’ll never forget the faces of patients as they saw their new smiles in the mirror for the first time or the emotional faces of their parents who sometimes can’t even recognize their own kids after the surgery.”

Muñoz Olaso said Notre Dame students should care about Operation Smile because they have the power and resources to help those in need.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the Notre Dame bubble,” Muñoz Olaso said. “We forget that there are people out there that struggle and need help because they don’t have the resources we do.”

Gomez also believes that students’ reputation for kindness will influence the success of Operation Smile.

“Ever since I came to Notre Dame, I noticed that the students here are some of the most compassionate and caring,” Gomez said. “If we gather those efforts towards this cause, it could have an incredible presence and it would be a great help.”

Gomez said she has big plans to expand the club’s presence on campus, such as increasing student involvement and offering more programming.

Although medical missions have been difficult due to COVID-19, Gomez said she is looking forward to sending students on these missions in the future.

Even in the time of COVID-19, Gomez said the club strives to “put a little grain of sand towards the effort of raising awareness for this cause.”

Operation Smile Club holds Zoom meetings on the second Wednesday of every month. Any students who want to get involved with the club can fill out a form and receive invitations for the monthly meetings. The club is planning to have at least one or two events every month, including lectures from notable speakers and volunteer opportunities.

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