In 2012, my brother and I established an annual summer camp designed for 11 to 14 year olds from underserved neighborhoods in Contra Costa County, California. The theme for last year’s camp was “Mind-Body-Spirit,” an intensive, holistic health session centered on the importance of finding a healthy balance of the mind, body and spirit, as well as strategies to develop their potential and contribute to society. This encompassed fostering a positive outlook on their oral and overall health.
We focused one day of the retreat on the body, teaching healthy food choices, proper brushing and flossing techniques, and the importance of seeing the dentist every six months. We hoped to change their fear of visiting the dentist by empowering them to take ownership of their oral health.
At the end of this retreat, the children, inspired by their transformations and oral hygiene lessons, carried out their own activist project. Together, we reached out to the Northern California group for Operation Smile and began a drive to make care packages for toddlers across the globe who would undergo cleft palate surgery. The youth decided that each new smile would receive a “Smile Bag.”
In addition to the life-saving surgical care provided for free by Operation Smile, community members around the world volunteer their time to help alleviate obstacles children face in receiving care. Other ways operation smile volunteers contribute are by donating toys, toothbrushes and personal care items, creating quilts to provide warmth and comfort to the children, and crafting “Smile Splints” to prevent children from pulling their stitches during the 24 hours after surgery. Smile Bags are one of the many resources available to Operation Smile patients.
Smile Bags are handcrafted and filled with small personal care items, such as a mirror to allow kids to see their healed lips and new smile for the first time. Other items include cards, stickers and hand puppets made from socks. These hand puppets were designed by the youth volunteers as a fun way to encourage talking, singing and playing. Speech and language pathologists on mission trips with Operation Smile will use these to help kids learn how to pronounce words and sounds in the correct way post-surgery. A single puppet will not only help establish rapport with the children and families and serve as an icebreaker to engage children in play, but it also will explain therapy techniques. With a new mouth, new smile and new voice, each child will have access to an educational toy that will help them learn to speak.
The different anatomic features on the puppets, such as the tongue, eyes, lips and palate, will help speech pathologists show kids how to correctly form new sounds and phrases with their lips and mouth. Nose, hair, clothing and other embellishments were sewn onto the puppets to give them more personality. Sutures sewed onto the “lips” and “palate” would help children understand where the surgery will take place. About 10–15 middle schoolers attended the Operation Smile Service Project and helped make 70 Smile Bags, which were later sent to the Operation Smile headquarters in Virginia.
By combining youth empowerment, oral health literacy and social action through this ongoing partnership with Operation Smile, we have been able to help youth from disadvantaged communities develop their individual powers of expression, capacities for moral reasoning and an attitude of service to others. They learned to take ownership of their own oral health and to critically analyze, serve and transform their neighborhoods, personal lives and the global community at large. I’m blessed and proud of these young volunteers who organized this fun, crafty opportunity to help transform the world not only through service but through newly formed smiles.
~ Keemia Shariati, Predental, University of California Los Angeles ’18