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Operation Smile celebrates 40 years of helping children with cleft conditions

It's estimated globally every 500 to 750 children are born with a cleft condition, according to the Hampton Roads-based organization.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It was only one day’s worth of learning for Oscar High School sophomore Chris Brooks, and it wasn't what he expected going in.

“Very inspiring," he said. "It’s not like we're hearing fake stories."

Monday, students at Oscar Smith High School toured the headquarters of the Virginia Beach-based nonprofit Operation Smile during a field trip to the organization's interactive learning center. 

But one day’s worth of learning for students like Brooks equals a lifetime of work for Kathy Magee.

"It just never stops," Magee said.

Forty years ago, Magee and her husband, Dr. Bill Magee, embarked on a trip to help fix cleft lips and palates of children in the Philippines. Following their first journey, they decided they'd come back to help the families they couldn't on their first trip. 

“We were able to do about 40 surgeries, knowing full well there were about 300 children sitting in front of us," Magee said.

Every year, those efforts grew to where the organization has now provided more than 350,000 surgical operations to fix cleft lips and cleft palates and counting. 

"More children would come from different provinces. They get their word out," Magee said.

A cleft lip and cleft palate is a facial condition caused by a child’s mouth not fully closing during the early stages of pregnancy. It's estimated globally that every 500 to 750 children are born with a cleft condition.

The organization strives to not only help kids internationally but connect with kids locally, too. 

On their trip, the Oscar Smith sophomores read about individual cases and patients affiliated with Operation Smile, learning about real-world patients who have suffered from having a cleft condition. 

"I didn’t expect they had that much trouble in their communities because of the condition they had," Grace Gripka said. 

"The students start to feel all the things that go on into a mission," Magee said. 

While 40 years of service can’t be summed up in one day, Magee finds trips like this are always a day well spent.

"I think the information was hopeful to me because even though there was some hard information presented, I think that’s sometimes where you need hope," Gripka said. 

As part of their 40-year anniversary, Operation Smile reached out to 13News Now to help them give thanks to the surrounding Hampton Roads community.

You can catch more stories about the operation's efforts in the coming months or visit the nonprofit's website by clicking here.

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