OGDEN — Skyline High senior Brittany McDowell has five months to prepare for an experience she says will probably change her life — two weeks of helping to give needy children smiles, literally.
Last month Operation Smile gave McDowell a two-week assignment to Managua, Nicaragua. There she will teach children and families about health care, hygiene and after-surgery procedures for Operation Smile patients.
About 30 other students, including three others from Utah, also got their assignments after attending training at Weber State University that would prepare them to instruct families served by the organization.
Operation Smile is an international charity that provides free reconstructive surgery to children and young adults around the world suffering from facial deformities — specifically cleft lips and cleft palates.
Teams include surgeons, nurses, pediatricians, speech therapists, anesthesiologists and other volunteers who spend around 10 days in a developing country performing operations and educating families on different areas of health care.
In the United States around one in 800 children is born with a facial deformity. But in the developing countries that Operation Smile ventures into, deformities are found about one in 500.
Lisa Jones, spokeswoman for the organization, said children who are born with defects are often isolated and abandoned by peers. Many seldom leave their homes and don't attend school. Some are even left in orphanages.
She said aside from the social isolation, they often have trouble eating and speaking properly.
"When they come to the mission, people are happy to see them, and the kids can really come out of their shells, because they don't get that kind of attention, and you can see that excitement," Jones said.
Tracy Cohen, a senior from New Jersey who went to Morocco on her first mission last year, said she also got to visit orphanages and teach children about dental hygiene, hand out toothbrushes and give them Burger King hats — gifts the children thought were priceless.
Jones said a lot of the children who come to the missions are visiting a physician for the first time. That can be daunting for someone who doesn't understand why people in white jackets are prodding at them.
The students who accompany the missions also help familiarize the children with what is going to happen to them.
"It was just an unbelievable experience, I think I grew up so much, and I just felt like we got so much done," Cohen said. "There is such an excitement, and we aren't just helping them from the medical sense — we really are giving them a smile.
"I just experienced so much emotionally just seeing how much we could change their lives in just a 45-minute surgery."
McDowell, who is also a mission leader for the Operation Smile student association at Skyline, said she is looking forward to working for a cause with others who are like-minded about voluntarism.
"I know it is going to be very humbling and probably shocking," McDowell said. "We are up here in the United States with everything we have, and they are just doing the best they can — I am really excited to go."
Kellie Farr from Bountiful High will be accompanying McDowell to Nicaragua in January. Chelsea Gould from Orem High and Nathan Jarrett from Lone Peak High will also be going on Operation Smile missions within the next year.
More than 450 schools in the nation have Operation Smile student programs, which raise around $600,000 annually for the organization.
Since the program began, more than 1,000 students have participated on medical missions to countries such as the Philippines, Kenya, Cambodia, Brazil, Jordan and China.