NORFOLK -- In a blaze of orange T-shirts with the words “Change Forever” boldly inscribed on them, 550 high school and college students from 24 countries boarded the gangplank of the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) on Naval Station Norfolk, July 31.
The students were part of the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) with Operation Smile, an international children’s medical charity. The conference was held at Old Dominion University in Norfolk and included 75 students from Hampton Roads. It was the largest group to ever tour Comfort.
“I have always admired and respected the Navy and this respect was only deepened through our visit,” said Katherine Duffy, a Norfolk Academy student and part of the Operation Smile tour. “I thought it was great to see a different side of the Navy.”
Capt. George McCarthy, civil service mariner, master of Comfort and Capt. Kevin Knoop, director of the medical treatment facility, spoke with the students prior to their tour, regaling them with the history of the ship and its humanitarian missions around the world. Both captains then met with the students as they boarded.
Operation Smile is headquartered out of Norfolk and has a long history of working with the military medical staff of Comfort on humanitarian missions.
In 2007, Operation Smile joined Comfort during its humanitarian assistance deployment where Operation Smile volunteers and the ship’s medical team worked together during medical missions in Nicaragua, Peru and Colombia, providing more than 100 children with free reconstructive surgery.
In July 2009, Operation Smile joined Comfort and provided life-changing surgeries and medical services for 57 patients in Latin America and the Caribbean.
And in 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Operation Smile sent a team to work alongside the crew aboard Comfort.
“I love that our Navy values humanitarian support as our military advances,” said Duffy. “We can always turn to charitable acts to bring us together.”
Operation Smile works in more than 60 countries to provide free reconstructive surgery and related care to children worldwide who are born with facial deformities, including cleft lip and cleft palate. Students are important volunteers and advocates for the organization.
Today, more than 900 Operation Smile student clubs and associations in more than 40 countries create awareness and raise funds to give hope and news smiles.
“I think it is amazing that so many countries value humanitarian support and can come together and put aside military differences,” said Duffy.
Hundreds of students from the U.S. and around the world also volunteer on medical missions, serving as translators and providing education on burn care and prevention, oral rehydration therapy, dental hygiene and nutrition, to inform local populations of basic health care that ultimately improves quality of life.
“I think Operation Smile teaming up with Comfort and overlapping on missions is great,” said JJ O’Shea, a student from Gonzaga College in Dublin, Ireland. “They are two fantastic organizations and working together could produce great rewards.”
Each year, the organization hosts the ISLC, where the goal is to educate students on the value of service within their communities and help develop their skills as future philanthropic leaders. ISLC participants hail from 24 countries including the U.S., Canada, Jordan, Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, Columbia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Sweden, Vietnam and many others. This year’s ISLC celebrated Operation Smile’s 30th Anniversary, and Operation Smile’s global campaign entitled, “Change Forever.”
During the ISLC, students participated in team building activities, competed in field games and completed a service project for future Operation Smile patients.
Touring Navy facilities like Comfort’s medical treatment facility helps the students connect with what Operation Smile accomplishes on a global level.
“I think it is important for the Navy to provide humanitarian support,” said O’Shea. “They have fantastic facilities that can really make a difference.”
Dr. William Magee, cofounder and chief executive officer of Operation Smile, accompanied the students and provided insight into the cooperation between the medical treatment facility within the ship and the organization.
“Students offer the energy and passion necessary to spark the ripple effect for change,” said Magee. “These children are our future leaders, and we are so grateful for their compassion and dedication that helps us make a difference in so many lives around the world.”