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What is Operation Smile?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Operation Smile is a charitable organization founded by plastic surgeon William Magee, and his nurse/social worker wife, Kathleen Magee. On a volunteer mission to the Philippines in 1982, the couple worked to help repair cleft lips and cleft palates of those who did not have access to medical care. The need for these repairs far exceeded what the mission could address. In response to this need, the Magees formed Operation Smile to raise funds and create more missions to countries where access to repair for facial deformities was limited or completely non-existent.

Since 1982, Operation Smile has sent medical missions to numerous countries. It has also partnered with countries to teach local surgeons how to repair and care for those with cleft palate and cleft lips. Each year about 10,000 children and young adults have surgery to repair facial defects through the worldwide efforts of Operation Smile.

While the base of Operation Smile remains in Virginia, there are several global chapters of the organization that help to raise funds and organize missions. These include chapters in Los Angeles, London, Rome, Hong Kong, and New York City. It’s actually fairly stunning how little it costs in many impoverished countries to repair cleft defects. It usually costs about 240 US dollars (USD) per surgery. This amount seems extremely low when compared to a similar repair in most western countries. In total, including aftercare, education programs and need for continued fundraising, Operation Smile estimates a complete cost of 750 USD per child.

In some cases, Operation Smile brings children to the US for surgery. Occasionally defects are too complex to be repaired locally. When this is the case, Operation Smile will fund the transportation of the child and usually one parent, and pay for not only any needed surgeries but also lodging and food for the family member. This incurs greater expense, as not all hospital costs can be completely donated. Generally, children or adults who come to the US must receive special sponsorship and extra donations.

In contrast, Operation Smile field missions have the volunteer services of trained physicians and others in the medical field. A high number of cases can be quickly treated in a few days to a few weeks. This is generally the most cost-effective way for Operation Smile to help a large number of people. Yet physicians often leave a mission knowing they could not help everyone. This keeps people devoted to the cause of raising more funds to undertake more missions.

Since its inception, Operation Smile estimates that it has successfully performed reconstructive facial surgery on over 100,000 children. About 86% of its funds raised go directly toward these surgeries and toward funding medical missions. Operation Smile has also been recognized with several prominent humanitarian awards. The charity has proven effective, with positive results and continued goals for helping to improve the lives of many children and young adults in developing countries.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Nov 29, 2014

Wow. I've never heard of this charity, but what wonderful work these people do! That's really awesome.

It is amazing how far this surgery has come. When a friend was born with this condition in 1968, she was kind of a pioneer case. Her doctor had developed the surgical procedure to correct the cleft in her palate and in her lip, too. She's in several medical journals since hers was the test case.

And to think, now, they're able to do several of these surgeries in a day! It's truly amazing how far medicine has come in just over 40 years!

By Scrbblchick — On Nov 28, 2014

Operation Smile is an incredible organization. They do so much good for so many people. A cleft lip and palate can be fixed so easily nowadays, and it's a shame when children aren't able to have the surgery they need, just because there are no funds to have it done, and no qualified surgeons to do it.

A doctor from my church went on one of these missions to Brazil and he said they did over 75 operations while they were there. They had a clinic set up and just did about 10 operations a day. But he said it makes all the difference in the world in their lives. He said they are accepted by their families and communities and are able to go on and lead much better lives.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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