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A baby that inspired an idea that helped change the lives of many Cambodian children - Operation Smile photo

Mike Nebeker and Operation Smile are changing lives one smile at a time - NR photo

A child before.... Operation Smile photo

And after a 15 minute Operation Smile cleft lip surgery - Operation Smile photo

Vodanny Pheng - NR photo




James Loving - National Radio Text Service

"Changing Lives One Smile At A Time."

Friday June 7, 2002

On Thursday April 18, 2002 a team of six American surgeons, JoJo Cembrano, Bruce Ferris, Les Mohler, Dave Fisher, Stephanie Feldman and Steve Naum arrived in Cambodia to perform cleft lip and cleft palate operations on some of the nations needy children.

An Operation Smile staff of 44 that included anesthesiologists, nurses and support personnel also made the trip. Three days were scheduled for planning meetings and five days for operations.

Prior to their arrival Operation Smile's original goal was to perform 125 surgeries in five days. They were so successful in exceeding their target that 44 more children benefited from their efforts. Six surgeons performed 169 operations in five days at Sihanouk Hospital.

Operation Smile is a private, not for profit volunteer medical organization that provides reconstructive surgery and related health care to indigent children and young adults in developing countries and the United States. They launched in 1982 and currently support missions to more than 30 sites in 20 developing countries.

Mike Nebeker, the Director of Operation Smile and Pacific Rim Development spoke at the Rotary Cub of Cambodia April 24th, the fourth day of the procedures.

At that time Nebeker was ecstatic about the progress and the teams success. He then stated that the target would be to perform, 160 surgeries. The teams 169 operations exceeded that goal enabling nine more children to have a better and normal life.

After his announcement Nebeker invited me to come to the hospital to witness the proceedings. Upon arrival there was a room filled with children who had or were waiting to have an operation. Parents were also there to comfort their offspring.

Doctors were moving about, their faces beaming with glee. They could see the results of their efforts; it was a mission being accomplished beyond hopes and projections. Their happiness wasn't about money; these surgeons and supporting staff volunteered their time, skills, services to perform the operations.

Transportation for the Operation Smile group was provided free of charge by Jerry Moyes CEO of Swift Transportation. He owns Sports Jet, a plane that is used by the NBA's Phoenix Suns basketball team. With just one trip across the Pacific Ocean Moye's plane flew two teams of surgeons from America. They dropped one group off in Vietnam and the second team in Cambodia. A total of 13 pilots and attendants also made the trip.

That was the news then in April, butů this is the story now. These operations didn't occur by chance. The idea was germinated from an experience of Vodanny Pheng.

In 2000 Vodanny made a trip to Kampot Province to help the people who were suffering from the effects of devastating floods. While there she saw a four-month-old child that had a growth on her back and many children with cleft lip. Vodanny wanted to do something about it.

"A family cannot afford (the operations) so we came up with the idea of helping the children with all of these problems," she said.

Vodanny contacted her father Benson Pheng, the Senior Advisor of the Charaplast Organization in Long Beach, California, America. Charaplast also helps Cambodian people in the US. She asked her father and James Laub, the Executive Director of the organization to help her raise funding and assistance to perform operations for underprivileged children in Cambodia.

With the help of her father and Charaplast's founder and CEO Donald Laub M.D. contacts were made. The Swanson Foundation became major contributors. Others followed including Sobbhana Women's Foundation of Cambodia, Physician for Peace, Adopt-A-Minefield (UN) Interplast and Operation Smile.

Vodanny and her Cambodian Charaplast committee coordinated paperwork with the Cambodian Ministry of Health to facilitate what needed to be done to make everyone's efforts come to fruition.

When Vodanny sought the help of the Interplast organization that also perform cleft lip operations for free, they couldn't take on the task at the time and they contacted the Operation Smile organization.

It took two years for all of the pieces to come together. Unfortunately during that time the 4-month-old baby that helped inspire Vodanny's idea passed away at six months of age.

Vodanny's data reveals that of Cambodia's 11.5 million population, 854 children are born with cleft lip each year. There are only two plastic surgeons in the country.

Nebeker said that throughout the world one in 400 children is born with cleft lip. Operation Smile has performed 60,000 operations in 20 years.

Vodanny's efforts are ongoing. She and her volunteer staff know there is more to be done to help the medical needs of impoverished Cambodian children.

Many of the volunteer Cambodian staff work in the Cambodian Ministries of Health, Education and the National Assembly. The staff includes Keo Hoklee, Leng Tong, Seng Bunthoeun, Poum Sovannarith, Sonn Savada, Sek Sophon, Kith Touch, Khim Rady and Seak Kunrath.

The USA committee consists of James Laub, Benson Pheng, Sam Srey, Poury Chhun, Sopindh Am, Phay Lok, Oum Kuoy, Jay Ku and Nhep Sreng.

Going forward Vodanny and Charaplast have plans.

"Our plans for Charaplast is still hoping to connect with Operation Smile in order to have them come to Cambodia at least once a year," she said. "Here in Cambodia we are sending people to do some training at the Operation Smile conference (in Cebu, Philippines) in order to learn how to do fundraising in Cambodia.

"We cannot get all of the funds from the US. We have to have parts from Cambodia. We have to contact the International companies here to collect some funds so that we can bring Operation Smile here to Cambodia at least once a year to continue to do operations on children."

Through the efforts of Vodanny, her team and the team of Operation Smile, things are changing for the children of Cambodia. As the motto on Nebekers' business card conveys', "Changing Lives One Smile At A Time."

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