Bringing smiles to kids’ faces around the world

Senior Gina Davis, who has had 15 surgeries to repair her cleft lip and palate, is the founder of Operation Smile Club, which raises money for children who are born with cleft lip and palate. Photo: Rana Khatib

Gina Davis found the inspiration to start a student organization from her own life experience.

Born with a cleft lip and palate, she had 10 surgeries before she was a year old and another five surgeries between seventh and 12th grades. Because she looked different from her peers, she suffered from bullying and teasing in elementary school.

“I know from personal experience, from having surgeries, that looking more ‘normal’ makes a big difference in your life,” said Davis, a senior in sociology/pre-med.

Living in the U.S., Davis had access to health care resources to have the surgeries on her cleft lip and palate. But for children in some other countries, it’s not that simple.

So she founded Operation Smile Club at UIC, which raises money for Operation Smile, a nonprofit that provides free surgeries to children who are born with cleft lip and palate, a congenital birth defect that affects the upper lip and roof of the mouth.

As many as one in 10 babies in developing countries that are born with a cleft lip and palate die before turning 1 year old, according to Operation Smile.

Without surgery, babies born with cleft lip and palate cannot properly swallow food or water. Children face other difficulties, such as not being able to go to school because it is considered a distraction to other students. Some parents abandon their babies because of the birth defect.

There are also lifelong issues associated with lack of treatment, like speech and hearing problems and chronic ear infections.

“A lot of what people don’t realize is that it’s not only an issue of physical appearance — it’s a functional issue. Babies can’t eat or drink,” Davis said.

Operation Smile is a worldwide organization started by doctors 30 years ago.

Since then, more than 3.5 million consultations and about 200,000 surgeries have been conducted in more than 50 countries. Operation Smile provides care centers where patients who received surgeries can visit for a follow-up. They also train the local medical professionals in cleft lip and palate repair to be self-sustainable.

Davis found out about Operation Smile at her doctor’s office and decided to start a campus group that sends its proceeds to the main organization.

“My biggest concern is spreading awareness about the issue,” Davis said.

The group held a ribbon sale last week, “to promote awareness about the actual defect itself because people in the U.S. don’t know what it is,” Davis said. Other planned events include visiting children in the hospital and participating in the Chicago Color Run 5K race to raise awareness.

“We are really interested in partnering up with some other UIC student organizations to plan larger events in the near future,” Davis said.

She hopes the group can raise enough money by the end of the semester to fund three surgeries — about $720.

Students interested in joining the group can attend general meetings at 5 p.m. on Mondays in Student Center East. For more information, email  Davis at

• Rana Khatib is a senior in English. 

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