Operation Smile

It feels like each month goes by faster than the last, and this month was no exception. The big event of this month for me was Operation Smile. Last year I participated in Op Smile on a whim, without really knowing what it was or what I was getting myself into. The morning I was supposed to travel back to my site, two friends convinced me to instead go to Accra and help out with this program. I wrote about it in a blog last year so I won’t talk too much about it, but basically Gayle, Taylor and I ended up staying at the shelter where patients and their families lived for 10 days while they waited for and received free cleft lip/cleft palate surgeries.  That week was chaotic and utterly exhausting, but we left already anticipating the next year, with big plans of how we would change the shelter and make it a better experience for everyone.

This year, Op Smile was held in Tamale (in the northern part of Ghana). I was excited to be part of the program again, but also anxious to leave site amidst our big construction project.  Last year, every day nearly 300 people sat around the shelter with nothing to do and nowhere to go. We did the best we could to entertain them by playing with the kids, letting the women braid our hair, making them laugh by demonstrating our horrendous Frisbee skills, etc., but it wasn’t much. By the end of the week last year, we decided to run a program each day at the shelter with activities for everyone to do, sort of like a camp. That idea eventually turned into having a theme for each day at the shelter. The themes were: Hygiene, Malaria, Crafts, Food Security, Diversity, HIV/AIDS, and Gender/Youth Development (GYD). I was in charge of leading the first day, hygiene day. Things ended up being kind of hectic because all the potential patients were going to the hospital in groups for pre-surgery screenings, but by the afternoon we got the hygiene activities rolling. To start, we taught everyone the “Wash Your Hands” song a fellow PCV created during our training. The song goes like this:

Wash your hands many times a day,
Always use soap to keep the germs away.
Wash your hands before you eat,
Wash your hands after the toilet.
Wash your hands before you cook,
Wash your hands after you sweep.
Wash your hands many times a day,
Always use soap to keep the germs away!

There is a simple clapping game that goes along with the song, and it has been a hit all across Ghana. We wrote the lyrics on several poster-sized pieces of paper and hung them around so people could see the lyrics as they played the game. Over the next few days, I saw several people bring out sheets of paper to write down the lyrics so they could bring it home, and heard women and children singing the lyrics to themselves. Capacity building!

After the hand washing song, we gave the small children pages depicting sanitation issues in Ghana to color while we took the adults and older children to the grassy area to teach them how to build tippy taps. Tippy taps are simple hand washing stations you can build for very low cost that can greatly increase the sanitation and hygiene in a home. We built three: one near the shelter for people to use before they eat and after they sweep, one near the shower (which many people used as a urinal, even though we asked them not to) and one near the latrine. I was very pleased to see people using them all week long.

I had more activities planned, but those took up most of the afternoon. A few days later I helped another PCV, Linda (incidentally the creator of the “Wash Your Hands” song) lead craft day. We began by talking about hygiene again and the importance of keeping your environment clean. One of the biggest problems in Ghana is litter. It’s everywhere. And the vast majority of it is pure water sachets and black plastic bags. Unfortunately, we haven’t come up with anything to do about the plastic bags, yet, but one volunteer discovered a great use for the water sachets. You can cut them and fold them into rings, and connect those rings to make things like hammocks and football nets. So, to keep the environment clean, we asked people to save their pure water sachets. On the morning of craft day, we asked them to also go out and collect as many discarded sachets as they could find. Then we handed out pairs of scissors and began cutting the edges to prepare them to make a net. Around noon, a huge storm rolled in, dampening our efforts, and most people went back to their rooms. Linda and I headed upstairs to one of the rooms where mothers with young babies were staying. We brought with us more pure water sachets, fabric, needles and thread and taught them how to make coin purses with them. It was a simple, fun way to spend the rainy afternoon, and it is something the women can continue doing in their hometowns. We discussed with them how they are simple to make, the materials are cheap, and asked them how much they think they would sell them for. Several of the women were seamstresses or had sisters that were seamstresses and were eager to try these out with a sewing machine.

Overall, the shelter was so much better this year than last year. It also helped that three of us didn’t have to stay there overnight the entire week—that was really draining on us to be on call 24/7 last year. All the PCVs took rotations staying overnight, which worked well. Unfortunately, a lot of the same problems with Op Smile persisted, and new ones arose. I’d rather not make this a negative blog post and list all the frustrations, but I will say it got bad enough that two other PCVs and I got together afterwards and wrote a letter to Op Smile discussing what went well, the issues we observed (including recommendations on how to fix these issues), and ultimately suggesting that Peace Corps no longer partner with Op Smile. The patients and their families are always amazing and both of my Op Smile weeks were some of the best memories from my service, but the Operation Smile organization just runs a terrible program, which leaves Peace Corps volunteers completely overworked, and forces them to do things beyond their responsibility and sometimes capacity. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the right decision I think.

I was very angry for several days after the mission ended; angrier than I’ve been in a long time. I was angry at how Op Smile treated their patients, how they handled (and didn’t handle) so many major issues that occurred over the 10 days, and angry in general at how pro bono medical care in developing countries functions. I was prepared to write a scathing blog post about all of this, but (un)fortunately I was too tired, and my computer broke while I was in Tamale, so I didn’t get around to it. I got a loaner computer for the week, and now I’m back at site for about 10 days before I head back down to Accra to take the GRE and pick up my visitors from the airport!! My mom, sister, and friend are coming for a two week visit. It will be weird seeing people from home after not seeing anyone for 18 months (except seeing a friend briefly during my first month in country).  Then as soon as they leave, I head back to my site long enough to pick up three jr. high girls and then we head to our week long Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp. I’m so excited for the GLOW camp, I think it’s going to be fantastic, and be a great experience for the girls. We will be doing a lot to teach them leadership skills and improve their self esteem, and we will also be doing a lot of health related education (reproductive health, malaria, HIV including a person living with HIV guest speaker) and we will teach fun things, like those water sachet coin purses and zumba!

We still need help raising funds for our camp. Last I checked, we’ve only raised $1,000 of the $3,000 we need. Please consider donating, it would mean the world to us and our girls.


Sorry there are no pictures on this post. I put some on facebook, and a few on flickr. Here’s the link to my flickr site:


I’m sure August will fly by even faster than July, but I promise several excellent blog posts in September after everything winds down!

Sending love and light to all of you