What is more amazing than seeing a child smile for the first time?
Nothing, as Devan Griner found out personally when he served as a youth volunteer on a two-week mission with Operation Smile to Vietnam. There he helped very young patients overcome their fears about doctors as they waited for their turns to have cleft palates or other facial deformities repaired. Devan also started a Smile Club in Skyline High School in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Devan is the first to tell that he is not the only LDS teen working long and hard for Operation Smile. When he was elected to serve on the national youth council, he met Amanda Fairbourne, also on the national council, who is a member of the Church from Plymouth, Minnesota.
The chapter Devan helped organize at his high school is also not the first in Utah. The Bountiful High School chapter was organized first, but the members unselfishly helped him get a chapter going at his high school.
But sometimes that’s what it takes to be an everyday hero, not the person who is doing the most, or even the one who is doing it first, just the one who is doing all he can to serve in a good cause. And Devan is doing just that. He persuaded his school to donate the proceeds from their annual Millions of Pennies charity drive to Operation Smile. Because Operation Smile was such a good cause, the school responded with unprecedented enthusiasm. The thought of putting a smile on a child’s face was enough to melt the toughest hearts. Their donation became the biggest youth chapter donation ever received at the national headquarters.
Operation Smile started 15 years ago when a plastic surgeon and his wife, who also served as his nurse, went to the Philippines and donated their time to repairing cleft palates for several weeks. So many children were turned away that they were determined to come again. And they did, this time bringing other volunteer doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists.
The good work spread. Soon doctors from all over the United States were donating their time on surgical teams visiting countries where cosmetic surgery to repair deformities was too expensive or nonexistent.
Teenagers wanted to get involved. They started forming clubs to raise money for the supplies the doctors and nurses needed to take with them. The surgeons and medical personnel donated their time, airlines often donated the flight tickets, but money was still needed to fly all the equipment needed to set up operating rooms in countries around the world. The surgical teams would sometimes operate 16 hours a day, each doctor handling as many as 30 little patients. “That’s the cool thing,” says Devan. “In a matter of 30 minutes in cleft palate surgery, a child’s life is changed forever. Before, the kids have big huge holes. Sometimes they wear bandannas because they feel disgraced. They often aren’t allowed to attend school, and some are even abandoned by their parents. A 30-minute operation changes that.”
Devan got his club involved in fund-raising. His friends and fellow club officers Travis Nilsson, Jared Ellsworth, and Ruth Ann Romney were soon as enthusiastic as Devan about seeing healthy smiles on the faces of children. The Skyline Club used video presentations and plenty of talk to spread the word. Also, Devan was trained to be one of two youth volunteers to go on a mission with one of the surgical teams. Sent to Vietnam, Devan was not entirely prepared for what he would see.
“I met a kid about 14 who had a bad burn contracture. A contracture is when the scar pulls as it heals. He fell on a lamp when he was six months old. His burn was on his face and neck, and it pulled his head to the side and pulled his eye down. It kind of surprised me. I didn’t know how to react.
“I was juggling for the kids and blowing bubbles to entertain them as they waited for their turn in surgery. Every time I looked at him, he was watching me. He liked the bubbles. His chin was pulled down so far by the scar that he couldn’t bring his lips together enough to blow bubbles. I gave him the bubble wand, and he started making huge bubbles, putting on a show for everyone. It kind of hit me. He looks horrible, but inside he was great. I could tell he was trying to smile because he was having fun.
“I saw him after his operation. The surgeons released the burn scar and removed a lot of scar tissue. His eye went back to normal. His mouth came back up. He had some skin grafts. After the operation, I went over and shook his hand. He could actually smile. It was cool.”
Devan, Travis, Jared, Ruth and the rest of the club members have learned what it means to lose a little bit of themselves in the service of others. They have come to appreciate the blessings of their own lives and the good things that they sometimes take for granted.
It’s enough to make you smile.
After each child goes through surgery, he or she is given a Smile bag or Smile doll that has been made and donated by various organizations to help in the efforts to brighten the lives of children.
The Young Women of Logan First Ward, Logan Utah Stake (below), made 139 hand puppets which they donated to Operation Smile. The puppets were sent with a surgical team to the Philippines, where they were used to entertain the children and help them feel at ease prior to surgery. Dayna Conger, a Laurel whose brother is serving a mission in the Philippines, said, “This project was a lot of fun. It made me feel more connected to my brother and the people he is serving.”