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Holly Zoeller of Operation Smile: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t understand”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t understand. I used to really struggle with this, and it takes active practice, but you can’t do everything alone, especially big tasks. It’s only natural to feel fearful or apprehensive, but you are capable of more than you know, and one of the most […]

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t understand. I used to really struggle with this, and it takes active practice, but you can’t do everything alone, especially big tasks. It’s only natural to feel fearful or apprehensive, but you are capable of more than you know, and one of the most courageous things you can do is ask for assistance. Allowing other people to contribute and aid your work will only make it, and you, better.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Holly Zoeller.

Holly Zoeller is a senior at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, with a double major in Spanish and Public Health. She has been involved with Operation Smile for more than six years and was a founding member of the Operation Smile student volunteer community in Kentucky. In her collegiate career, Holly piloted the Cook Stove Project with Operation Smile. After graduation, Holly plans to take a gap year abroad before working in the public health field with a focus in global health equity. Outside of school, Holly enjoys traveling, playing music, working at a local preschool, and spending time with her family, friends and dogs.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, as the youngest of three kids. My dad, Dan, is a high school principal who taught me a love of travel and the importance of learning. My mom, Pam, is a speech pathologist who introduced me to a love of language and the joys of good conversation. My older brother, Jude, and my sister, Chloe, are powerful individuals who motivate me to work hard and do my best. I began working in the world of service and community engagement in my elementary school, where we got to help support the large refugee and immigrant community in Louisville. This was my first taste not only of real service, but of understanding the profound differences that exist in lived experiences around the world. I continued that experience into high school, eventually leading me to Operation Smile, and from there, everything changed.

Besides service, I grew up and continue to love school, and I am grateful for the quality education I have received throughout my life. I am a huge advocate for animal rights, becoming the lone vegetarian in my family as a 7-year-old. I grew up constantly surrounded by a large extended family on both my paternal and maternal sides, and my identity is based so deeply in those connections with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Throughout my life, I have been very lucky to have traveled extensively, which has fueled my love of international relations, and I hope to continue traveling throughout my life.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Operation Smile is an international nonprofit which provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries to so many people around the world, while also promoting a culture of health equity, as they believe everyone has the right to safe, high quality care. I began working with Operation Smile in high school when I was invited to their International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC), where I quickly fell in love with Operation Smile’s mission and compassionate community. I started the first club in the state of Kentucky at my high school, Assumption High School. From there, the club exploded, as Assumption, too, has such a tangible community of care, like Operation Smile. Assumption supported me in attending an Operation Smile medical mission in Antananarivo, Madagascar, as a student volunteer and serving on the high school national leadership council.

Operation Smile opened my eyes to the extreme inequities around the world when it comes to access to health, and, since then, I have known that I feel called to dedicate my life towards promoting health equity. In college, I study public health and Spanish with the hopes of working in the international health field, and I also have served as the president of an Operation Smile college chapter for the past three years. One of the greatest opportunities I have been given in connection to Operation Smile was when I received funding from my scholarship at University of Louisville through the James Graham Brown Foundation of Kentucky. The funding allowed me to create my own enrichment opportunity for learning, and since Operation Smile had given me so much, I turned to them with this funding, asking what projects they were interested in pursuing related to health equity.

They approached me with the idea of a clean cook stove initiative, a growing phenomenon worldwide which aims to provide safe and well-ventilated cookstoves to those who do not have access to them. The project was of heightened interest to them because aside from the obvious environmental and health ramifications of inhaling unventilated smoke on a consistent basis, emerging research that Operation Smile has done in connection to the University of Southern California has linked maternal smoke inhalation from cooking over an indoor flame with the incidence of cleft conditions. We decided to begin in Mexico, where clean cookstoves were well known and where Operation Smile also has an esteemed presence. I was able to go to Mexico for two weeks, observing and communicating with various communities in and around San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico in order to gather as much information as possible to guide Operation Smile as they begin to support these initiatives. This work would never have been possible without the aid of (Operation Smile Mexico volunteer) Daniela García, who hosted me so graciously for the entirety of the two weeks. From there, we have developed a program for university students partnering with a local clean cook stove organization in Mexico to install these stoves, while promoting community education and health. It has been the honor of a lifetime to pioneer this program, and I am so proud of these efforts. I am confident it will make a huge impact, not only for Operation Smile as an organization, but for all of the communities that they serve in.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I originally felt drawn to Operation Smile after attending the International Student Leadership Conference, where I learned about their commitment not only to people living with cleft conditions but to promoting health around the world. They taught us that the poorest third of the population only receives 4% of global surgeries, which blew my mind. I have always been privileged enough to be able to go to the doctor for absolutely anything, and it devastated me to learn that people who needed life-saving surgeries were so frequently unable to attain that care. When I learned about these profound inequities, I felt like I couldn’t turn back.

In terms of the Cook Stove Project, it was brought to me by the co-founder of Operation Smile, Kathy Magee, and her daughter, Brigette Clifford. I was unsure at first, as I know nothing about stoves and home building, but the more I learned about this issue, the more I felt motivated to help. The idea of promoting clean cookstoves is a perfect example of preventative intervention, in that it could prevent cleft conditions from ever occurring and being a part of that huge of a solution is such an exciting prospect.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I have always been someone who has been incredibly driven by the idea that I have been so blessed in my life and it is my job to use those resources to make a positive impact in the world. When I was introduced to Operation Smile, way back in high school, I was searching for purpose in a deeper way than I even knew. When I attended their International Student Leadership Conference, that was the “aha moment” for me. I learned not only about the incredible work Operation Smile does for people with cleft conditions, but for health and health equity in general. They are always working to grow and do more, and they recognize that their potential is limitless.

I also loved the idea that they eventually want to run themselves out of business; they’re helping to build up health care infrastructure in communities worldwide, especially for cleft conditions, so medical missions run by teams of mostly international volunteers are no longer necessary. At its core, the ultimate goal of the Cook Stove Project is to prevent cleft in the first place. When I learned about their work, and especially in the context of such devastating injustice in health care access and distribution around the world, I knew I could never turn back. This was something I was going to have to devote my life to, and I might have never fully understood that without Operation Smile.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I think the most successful part of my work has always been and continues to be spreading the word. I actively talk and share stories about all of my experiences with Operation Smile, old and new, with anyone who will listen. When I was in high school, I told all my friends about the conference I had been to and the club I was starting, sending emails, texts, making flyers, you name it. I’ve done the same for my club in college. In terms of my bigger scale projects such as my medical mission in Antananarivo or my clean cook stove work, I stick with that trend. I use social media to allow others to gain some insight into the work that I do, as so many of my friends are active in global service as well. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth. When you are doing something you love, you want to talk about it anyway, and that has always helped me in building and maintaining my connection with Operation Smile.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

This one is hard, because I feel like I get great stories from my work at Operation Smile all the time. One that everyone always finds interesting happened when I trained to serve on the high school national leadership council. My team and I traveled to the Operation Smile headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to train in August before we served our school year term. Rather than putting us up in a hotel, they told us we would be staying with the co-founders of Operation Smile, Bill and Kathy Magee, in their home.

I remember feeling so flabbergasted at this; it felt like going to live with celebrities (and it kind of is!). But they took us right in, allowing us to sleep in their spare bedrooms, eat with them, spend time in their beautiful backyard, and even stay up late into the night talking about our interests, personal lives, and future with Operation Smile. It was in staying there on that trip that it was solidified for me what a family Operation Smile truly is. Their work with student programs is extraordinary in every way. They have taken such an active interest in my life, and they hold so much love and esteem for me that they would invite me to stay in the home of the heart of the organization. I truly don’t know any other organization that holds students and their possibility in that high of a regard.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

One of the biggest mistakes I made at the beginning of my journey with Operation Smile was back in high school at Assumption, when I planned for my first meeting. We reserved a small room that could hold around 20 to 30 girls, and I figured if we had that many, it would be amazing. I underestimated the power of service, and I underestimated myself. We had more than 200 girls show up for that first meeting, and it absolutely blew my mind. Though there was another big room available, and everything eventually worked out. This taught me that I should always aim big and believe in my cause. You have to aim big, even if you fall short, because if you believe in the possibility of your actions, others will too.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I could talk about mentors throughout this process all day. First, Patty Makatsaria, an alumna of my high school who has worked with Operation Smile for many years, and the person who offered to sponsor my initial involvement via the International Student Leadership Conference. Her generosity without even knowing me at the time was incredible. Too, my high school principal, Martha Tedesco, and my teacher and student activities director, Becca Joaquin, who chose me to attend the Operation Smile International Student Leadership Conference in the first place. All of these women truly had no idea what they were doing when they invited me, they just saw a student with potential, but they changed the entire trajectory of my life.

Within the organization of Operation Smile, I have found even more mentors. I am inspired by the entire student programs staff, such as Christabelle (Cbelle) Fernandez and Pete Hansen, who guided me through high school, not only as a volunteer but as a growing individual, and Kate Malla, who has helped guide me in college in many of the same ways. Daniella García, the patient recruiting volunteer in Mexico who hosted me for two weeks without knowing more than my name to enable this project to come to fruition. Her generosity and kindness blew me away. Jennifer McKendree, who is in charge of all student programs, believed in my project and in my possibility from the beginning. She has become more than a mentor to me — she is someone who is like family, and I will always hold her very close to my heart. Really, there are so many people working at Operation Smile that inspire me, and I find new role models in the organization every day.

In terms of cheerleaders, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my parents. They give me such liberty in pursuing my dreams, and they trust my ability to lead and grow immensely. I don’t know anyone else whose parents would trust them to travel around the world with an organization, but they did, and that confidence in me is what gives me courage.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When working in Mexico investigating for the Cook Stove Project, Daniela and I entered into a home of a woman in a local town whose son had recently received a cleft lip surgery from Operation Smile the previous month. The mother, Micaela, was only 16, and her son, Alexander, was around 1 year old. He was doing extremely well since his surgery and had healed and followed his post-op care so well. Micaela was kind enough to invite us into her home, where we were able to see that she cooked over a single hot plate while sometimes cooking over open flames as well. She struggled to be able to feed her growing family, and in this moment, I was able to see my original connection to Operation Smile — people with cleft conditions — intersect with my new connection — the clean cook stoves. It allowed me to understand the bigger picture of what this new initiative is doing, which is so broad and full of possibility that we can’t even begin to imagine all we hope to accomplish. I am so grateful to have met Micaela and Alexander that day, and I will carry that experience with me always.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think the biggest thing that the United States as a nation can learn related to the work I do with Operation Smile is to trust public health workers. As a country, we can put so much emphasis on treating disease rather than preventing it, and promoting preparation and education is imperative. No year has taught us this better than 2020, when we struggled through a pandemic, in part due to varied levels of preparation, wavering trust in science, the under-utilization of public health workers, and more. I hope we can learn as a society to lean into the work of public health experts more in the future so that we can help prevent illness and injury from occurring in the first place.

I think politicians, especially those working directly with foreign relations and health, have to also acknowledge the fundamental disadvantages that developing countries are facing when it comes to opportunities for wellness. We cannot expect a developing nation to be on the same levels educationally, technologically or economically if we don’t first support their most basic human needs — health and health care. It is through the support of organizations like Operation Smile that this work is done, and it has to be prioritized above all else so that global communication and interaction can be sought out.

Lastly, I implore the global community, especially those who have access to safe and good quality health care, to acknowledge that so many in our society today go without this basic human right. If there is anything you can do to rectify this — donating to a nonprofit like Operation Smile, helping educate your community about opportunities for health, paying an increased tax that will allow more people to have health insurance, educating yourself about the importance of public health, etc. — please do it. We, as a society, will be able to achieve so much more if everyone is not simply able to survive but thrive with good health, and I truly believe every human being has that right.

What are your “five things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t understand. I used to really struggle with this, and it takes active practice, but you can’t do everything alone, especially big tasks. It’s only natural to feel fearful or apprehensive, but you are capable of more than you know, and one of the most courageous things you can do is ask for assistance. Allowing other people to contribute and aid your work will only make it, and you, better.
  2. Start with something you’re passionate about. It can be such a waste of time to do something because you think you should, or because others are telling you to. What makes you get up every day? What do you feel like you have to change in the world? Begin with what ignites your curiosity, the thing you feel you can’t ignore, and it will lead you to much more meaningful and successful results.
  3. It’s okay to take a break, need space, or require a reset. I am certainly guilty of pushing myself too far, and it always leaves me exhausted and burnt out. It’s so important to prioritize your physical and mental health, especially as you are cultivating your identity and career. Sometimes you need to have a day to take a nap, go for a walk or order good takeout. It doesn’t make you unproductive; it can actually help you be a better advocate.
  4. There’s no one way to be professional. Though I am now considered an adult, I so often find myself questioning if I am acting or dressing or speaking the right way. You can be emotional, vulnerable, unique, young and still be professional. Your individuality is such a huge part of what makes you impactful.
  5. Have fun with it. Laugh at yourself when you make mistakes. Get invested in those you’re working with. Take time to celebrate the victories and learn from the failures. It doesn’t have to be all business all the time. There is so much pressure put on young people to be successful, advance, and keep working, but sometimes, the best thing you can do is step back and find joy in the work you’re doing. I’ve noticed that if I don’t make sure everyone is having fun, things are never as effective.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that if they come from a place of such security and privilege that they have the opportunity to help another person, be it in a little gesture or huge change, they should feel called to do so. In recent years, I have recognized intimately what it is to need support from others in times of struggle. If there hadn’t been other people stepping up to do their part to better society, I would have been helpless in my own personal struggles. Every day, I wake up with gratitude for the people who have played even the smallest role in my own healing, and it gives me all the more motivation to do the same for others. Everyone is coping with their own battles, and the only way that we as a society can find our own healing is to help others to do so too.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could have a meal with anyone in the world today, I would choose Tarana Burke. Tarana is a multifaceted activist best known for her work in founding the #MeToo movement and her recent work with the racial justice movement. She is an incredible role model in that she provides a space for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories and pursue justice, which is an issue I am incredibly passionate about. As a survivor myself, I recognize the damage that power based personal violence can take on a person, and Tarana is one of the foremost figures in allowing survivors to share a community of healing. Too, I think it is incredible that she is so multifaceted, as she now devotes a huge amount of time and effort to the racial justice movement amidst the protests that have occurred in 2020. I am so grateful for her work, and I hope she knows that she has reached so many young women who aspire to be as courageous as her.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on my personal Instagram @hollyzoeller, follow Operation Smile on their official Instagram @operationsmile, connect with me on Linked In, or even shoot me an email at [email protected]. I am glad to help anyone and everyone!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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