Full Circle: “See the Smiles” Winner Adela Tabares

Volunteer Story
Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.
Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.

The winner of Operation Smile’s “See the Smiles” sweepstakes is selected at random from our community of loyal supporters who sign up for the chance to travel to an international medical mission to witness the organization’s life-changing work firsthand.

This year’s winner, Adela Tabares, was no exception. Her name was arbitrarily picked from the many thousands of qualified entrants to visit the Cebu City site of Operation Smile’s multisite medical mission to the Philippines from February 24 through March 4.

However, there is nothing random about Tabares’ deeply personal connection to Operation Smile.

A native of the Philippines, she was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate – conditions that have a long history in her family. In fact, the Philippines is stricken with some of the highest rates of cleft incidence in the world – about one in 500 children born there suffer from cleft conditions compared to the global average of one in 750 births.

Tabares was fortunate to be able to receive her first surgeries at 6 months old and 4 years old in Manila before her family relocated to New Jersey. There, at ages 7 and 12, she received her third and fourth procedures at Cooper University Hospital under the hands of Dr. Arthur Brown, who went on to become one of Operation Smile’s leading volunteer cleft surgeons.

Today, Tabares makes her career at Cooper University Hospital – the very same hospital where she received her last cleft operations – as a pharmacist. Her random selection for the See the Smiles trip closes the circle on an incredible journey of healing and compassion.

We recently caught up with Tabares to learn more about her See the Smiles selection and the resulting trip to the Cebu City mission site.

Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.
Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.

Q: When you signed up for the See the Smiles drawing, what expectations did you have for winning, and what was your reaction to learning that you had been selected for the trip to the Cebu City mission?

A: “I wasn't expecting to win when I entered the sweepstakes, but I knew it wouldn't hurt to enter anyway. To my utter amazement, when I read the letter – that I won the sweepstakes – I only had one day to agree to be the winner! (Operation Smile Director of Donor Services and See the Smiles escort) Libby Czerlinsky had tried to call and email me about the happy notice, but I had missed those calls and emails. Luckily, when I finally got the messages, I immediately got in contact with Libby to say yes to be the winner, which was exciting! I was so utterly thrilled!”

Q: What does it mean to you to be an Operation Smile donor and how did your See the Smiles journey strengthen your passion for the organization’s work?

A: “I became an Operation Smile donor to repay those who have helped me, since I also had a cleft lip and cleft palate. There was a history of cleft conditions in the family. My family had fortunate circumstances to get me the needed operations when I was young, which isn’t the case for all too many children. As an Operation Smile donor, being able to witness and participate in the medical mission enlightened me to where the funds go. The journey also showed me why donors are needed, like funding for anesthesia, operating rooms, and lodging for the patients and families. Due to the varied logistics of each mission, the donations also helped with delivering all of the gear to the mission sites.”

Q: Can you describe the emotions of returning to your native country to help Operation Smile heal the smiles of children who were born with cleft conditions?

A: “Returning to the Philippines has always brought on mixed emotions of happiness, excitement and surprise, which was heightened by attending a mission with Operation Smile. I can’t help but to feel a profound thankfulness for the volunteers who give new smiles to patients and their families. The parents or caregivers were always saying and showing how thankful they were, which touched me since it showed how greatly affected they were by Operation Smile. After seeing the families the morning after their children’s operations, I could see the relief and happiness that their children will lead more normal lives, without bullying or ostracizing.”

Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.
Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.

Q: How were you able to help as a volunteer during the mission?

A: “During the mission, I helped out mostly in the child life room, which was where children and their families visited prior to the operating room to help ease their fears of their coming procedures. Kristina, from Sweden, was in charge of the room. I mostly tried to entertain the children while waiting to be called into the OR. Apparently, the iPad showing a children's song could only entertain for a few minutes! Bubbles fascinated old and young far longer. Fortunately for me, being in the child life room opened my eyes to how much parents and caregivers were willing to sacrifice to get their child to an operation. Many traveled a long way and missed work to give their child a chance at free, safe surgery.

Q: What did you learn in the medical mission setting that you did not realize before the trip?

A: “The logistics of setting up a mission is so complicated. A lot of gear and people, from all around the world, have to be organized. Organization is key!”

Q: What’s the memory from the trip you will hold most dear?

A: “The volunteers were inspiring. They worked hard and long while always being kind. Their kindness and dedication to bring smiles to the children and their families is what's in my memory.”

Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.
Photo: Libby Czerlinsky.