International Policy Digest

Operation Smile
Health /06 Jan 2020

Taking a Look at the Endeavors of Bill and Kathy Magee, Co-Founders, Operation Smile

There are few universals in the global human condition; there are ‘haves,’ there are ‘have nots,’ those who suffer from the challenges of lack of income, freedom, health, and social stature. We all have our own perceptions and measurements of our self-worth.

One of the outliers to this equation, one of the measuring sticks in the pursuit of happiness is one’s smile. When all else fails, when the ability to provide or to achieve without a much-needed hand up is not assured, one’s smile can prevail and can lift the hearts of many in the process.

And yet, thousands of children in low-and middle-income countries around the world afflicted with cleft palates or cleft lips live lives of isolation, fear, and secrecy. Often scorned by their own communities, they can lead invisible lives of despair and isolation.

We often have the privilege of discussing the role nonprofits play in society. Today, I’d like to raise awareness of a thriving international medical nonprofit that brings light and hope to the forgotten.

Operation Smile is quite frankly an inspirational organization based in both compassion and in action, bringing smiles and medical care to the less fortunate around the world.

I had the opportunity to speak with the co-founders of Operation Smile – Kathleen ‘Kathy’ Magee, a former nurse and clinical social worker and Dr. William P. ‘Bill’ Magee, a highly respected surgeon specializing in the treatment of cleft palate and cleft lip conditions. With only 4% of the world’s surgeries going to the poorest third of the global population, theirs is a truly exceptional story of responding with an impetus to intervene in a situation of true helplessness and desperation on the other side of the planet.

Bill and Kathy launched a charity in 1982 that has grown to enjoy a presence in more than 60 countries, providing free reconstructive surgery for hundreds of thousands of children and young adults born with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other facial differences.

The inspiration behind founding Operation Smile was one of compassion and commitment. Bill and Kathy took on the arduous task of filling what appeared to be an impossible void. When the Magee family traveled to rural Asia-Pacific countries, including the Philippines, their work as a medical team gradually evolved into something far greater. Over time, their teams of medical volunteers worked side by side with field physicians with only limited resources. Their presence and surgical successes caused a stir in the communities where they operated. The lines of waiting parents and children grew longer.

Both Kathy and Bill agree the challenges were daunting. Kathy recalled “the pain of leaving children behind, untreated…there were only so many we could help…I remember desperate mothers tugging at our clothes, begging us to help their babies and young children.” She acknowledged that leaving so many children without surgery and concluding the mission was painful. She said that they assured the mothers and fathers waiting in the lines that they would come back.

There were certainly challenges and opportunities behind integrating ‘operations’ within new countries. All of the challenges remained. Children were left behind with only hopes of being treated the next time.

What’s New Now?

Now, as 2019 draws to a close, Operation Smile continues its humanitarian efforts to bring relief to many children. They continue to raise funds to send their physicians and nurses back to help those left behind.

For example, many rural communities pool resources to get children to hospitals where the Operation Smile team can care for them. Operation Smile has 6,000 medical volunteers who are ready to go and who play a tremendously significant role in bringing their expertise and modern equipment to those rural communities, disconnected from the luxury of first world medicine and medical care.

The nonprofit has over time scaled in scope and global footprint. Two local students recently described to South African press their experiences during a medical mission for Operation Smile in Nampula, Mozambique, as “the opportunity of a lifetime,” where they looked after and entertained children, and also gave educational talks on dental care and the importance of hand-washing.

Across the world, for the past 15 years, Dr. Mikhail Kolybelkin, an experienced and respected surgeon, has been part of the Operation Smile medical team, spending his vacations performing complex facial surgeries on Operation Smile’s patients across Siberia free of charge. Dr. Kolybelkin’s son has also joined what they call the “family business.”


The Magee Family is immensely proud of the continued development of Operation Smile, and optimistic about Operation Smile’s ability to expand steadily over the next ten years’ time, both in reach and in scope of services.

Yet the challenges remain. It is said that every 3 minutes, a child somewhere in the world is born with a cleft. This makes eating and drinking virtually impossible.

In as little as 45 minutes and for a minimal donation, surgery can change a child’s life forever. Ensuring the quality of that child’s life is on parallel with his or her community and that with this life-changing surgery, they can live their days truly as happy as possible is as worthy a cause as this author can deem plausible.

Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” For more information about how you or your friends and family can help Operation Smile continue to grow and to allow its medical teams to continue to make real changes in the lives of these children left behind, please visit their website.