Say yes to everything that you can handle. There are so many opportunities and experiences that can arise from one “yes.” For example, this interview. I think that this is such a unique opportunity for someone at my age to be featured here, and I am so thankful for the opportunity. When you turn down offers out of fear or the unknown, nothing will be gained but an opportunity may be lost.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Madisyn Eppleman.
Madisyn Eppleman is a senior at the University of South Carolina with a major in nursing and a minor in psychology. She is from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Operation Smile has its headquarters, and she’s been a part of the organization since middle school. She currently holds a position on the College Leadership Council for Operation Smile, serves as her college’s club president, and is a part of Operation Smile’s new pilot program, the Dignity Project. After her four years at South Carolina University, she hopes to take six months off to travel before going back for future schooling to become a Nurse Practitioner.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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 a Navy family, so I got to move around a lot when I was little and was able to live in some really neat places, such as Hawaii and Italy. My family settled down in Virginia Beach, and we’ve been there since I was 10. I grew up with three younger siblings — two brothers and a little sister — and I’ve fully enjoyed being the big sister in a bigger-than-average family. My family has always been up for travel adventures, and I have learned the gift of giving from my mother, who taught me that the best thing you can do is be the kindest person in the room. My family is very close, and I am so blessed to have a supportive foundation for whatever life brings.
With such family values, it was only natural for my mom to encourage me to get involved in community service when I was young and connect with local organizations. Since Operation Smile was such an active community for the student population at multiple levels, I was able to really plug into their organization and get the ball rolling. Outside of Operation Smile, I grew up loving sports and played volleyball year-round. You can normally find me outside either running, going to the beach, or discovering new places to eat around different cities. My biggest passion, I would say, is traveling. I feel like the world has so much to offer, and there are so many different stories from people of various backgrounds that will bring new perspectives into your life and widen your world lens. Eventually, my journey with Operation Smile presented the opportunity to serve as a health care educator during a medical mission in Ho, Ghana. There, I realized how impactful Operation Smile was and how unique it is that they send students out into the field.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
This is one of my favorite memories to share. When I was volunteering on the Operation Smile medical mission to Ghana my senior year of high school, I was playing with some children who were waiting for the screening process. The screening process is a series of physical assessments that determine if a patient is healthy enough to receive surgery. As a student volunteer, one of my responsibilities was to play with the children. While we were wrapping up toward the end of the day, I saw one of the kids standing far off in the corner, away from all the other kids. When it was his time for the screening process, he was hesitant and refused to follow any of the medical staff to the screening area. So, I brought over a bouncy ball and tried to bounce it with him, and still, no reaction. Then I rolled the ball toward him so he could hold it. He looked down at the ball at his feet, then looked up at me with a smile. That smile was all I needed to know he trusted me and that we had bonded. No words were spoken. Later, I found out that he was an orphan and lived with his grandmother, who brought him to the medical mission site, and he spoke a dialect that his grandmother did not fully understand either. Throughout the rest of the day, I followed him throughout the screening process, holding his hand the entire way. During one of the stations, we had to wait for more than an hour, and he fell asleep in my lap — I knew right then and there that I was the most content I had been in my whole life. Complete strangers with complete trust, and only smiles for a form of communication. That is something rare. Later, I went on to share this story during my graduation speech and urged individuals in the room to realize that it should not be hard to be kind to one another. The Ghanaians expressed such acceptance and love and expected nothing in return. Nothing.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think that when people hear the phrase, “Making a difference,” they think of large-scale actions like donating part of their life savings to a nonprofit, or even volunteering on a mission trip. Although those things do make a difference, I do not think that making a difference is so much about the action as it is more so about the intention behind it. If you have an honest heart and go through life being kind to people, I believe you are making a difference. Whether that be smiling to strangers you pass by on the sidewalk, or holding the door for others, I can promise you that there are people you will impact by those small gestures. One of my favorite things I have ever read was: “Today you could be standing next to someone who is trying their best not to fall apart. So whatever you do today, do it with kindness in your heart.” I think by being a kind person in a somewhat chaotic world, you are making a bigger difference than any amount of money could ever do.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. 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?
As I have mentioned before, I am a part of Operation Smile which is a nonprofit organization that provides safe and free surgeries to patients born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Operation Smile’s vision, which can be found on their website at https://www.operationsmile.org/, is that they “envision a future where health and dignity are improved through safe surgery.” Smiling is a universal right, but it is more than just that. Cleft conditions pose health risks such as malnutrition and developmental effects such as speech impediments. There are also social impacts of cleft conditions. Unfortunately, in some cultures, there is a lack of knowledge around what causes cleft conditions, so some believe cleft conditions are a curse and treat the child as if they are their condition: a curse.
I am also a part of the Dignity Project, which is one of Operation Smile’s new pilot programs aimed at providing education surrounding women’s health and providing sustainable women’s health products in countries where there are medical mission sites, such as Malawi and Madagascar. There are many cultures where there is a lack of resources for women’s health education, so while women and girls are experiencing their monthly cycles, instead of attending school and receiving an education, they stay home. This poses a disadvantage to women, not only between genders but between women across the world. We hope that through the Dignity Project, we can address another health-related challenge. Being born with a cleft condition and being a woman should not be a curse or a disadvantage; they can be blessings if the lack of education and resources are addressed. And that is just what Operation Smile is doing.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I think that I originally was involved with Operation Smile because it was a local organization, and my mom encouraged me to get involved. I enjoyed Operation Smile activities, such as its annual dodge ball tournament and Rock that Smile, which was a concert with local bands and singers. It was not until I got to high school where I attended the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in 2016 in San Diego, California, that I realized that Operation Smile was more than just an organization with fundraising opportunities. Operation Smile actually encourages students to apply to its Mission Training Workshop and to volunteer as health care educators on medical programs. I found it so unique to be a part of a nonprofit organization that took their members and encouraged them to be on the front line and see where the fundraised money goes.
So, once I was able to go on a medical mission trip my senior year after working hard with the organization throughout high school, my passion did not stop and only became stronger. I went on for another training my sophomore year of college and was given the opportunity to be a part of the Dignity Project and be a part of the pilot team. As a part of that team, with an absolutely amazing and inspiring group of women, we were able to create the program from the bottom up. I think that this program really struck a chord with me because, well, first off, I am myself a woman. But besides that, I have such a strong passion for women’s health. I think that there are a lot of things that come with being a woman that is viewed as a curse because of the lack of education and resources, such as having a menstrual cycle. However, it is such a blessing because having a period is what allows us to reproduce and have beautiful children if we choose to do so. Even outside of Operation Smile, I hope to one day work as a labor and delivery nurse or in an OB/GYN private practice. I think that women are beautiful creations and all the natural, healthy bodily functions that come with being a woman should be universally understood and supported.
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?
Well first off, and this may be a bold statement to make, but if something truly is your passion you will manifest it. I do not use the word passion lightly, because it holds so much weight when I think about passions in my life. They are what keep me motivated and make me feel like I am putting my gift of life to good use. Operation Smile is not the type of organization where you are invested once, and you are over and done with it. It is the type of organization that keeps bringing you back and keeps providing opportunities to be a part of an effort to make a difference.
I would say my “aha moment” was definitely when the little boy I shared about earlier fell asleep in my lap. I just felt so connected to him and felt like he was my responsibility to care for and it was my sole job to make him feel safe in my arms. You do not just give up on something like that. That was probably my final trigger. Since then, my involvement with Operation Smile has only grown with new opportunities in each direction coming my way, and I could not be more thankful.
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 that taking those first few steps toward being a part of an organization and spreading that organization through other places in your life, like starting a club at your school, you have to have a passion for it. If you are not passionate, then when motivation is lacking, it will be difficult to keep going. The biggest piece of advice that I could give to young people in terms of taking those steps to get involved is to use your resources around you, and if those resources are not at your fingertips, then take that leap of faith and reach out yourself. When it came to the Dignity Project, fortunately, the opportunity presented itself to me. Of course, I could have rejected the offer, but I took that leap of faith and said “Yes.” Sometimes you never know what doors will open, or even what doors exist when you take that leap of faith. I also think that it is important to note that with everything in life, it takes a village. No one was meant to do everything in their life on their own. Use your support systems when it comes to starting a new organization or program and surround yourself with people who either share your same passions or will be there behind you every step of the way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting thing that I have witnessed since being a part of Operation Smile and starting the Dignity Project is how much there is to still do and how eager students are to be involved and do whatever they can in their power to help. It amazes me the kind of people who are a part of Operation Smile. There is not a single person that I have come across who has said no to an opportunity or to help. When it came to starting the Dignity Project, in the middle of a pandemic, we had multiple phone calls and meetings online to figure out ways to get the project alive. Everyone was active and everyone was ready to take the next step. To be a part of a group that is that dedicated is nothing short of motivating.
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?
Oh, this is quite the story. While volunteering in Ghana, I was at the patient shelter, where we worked in partnership with some UNICEF volunteers. One of the mothers at the patient shelter was making some fish stew, by hand, for the UNICEF volunteers as a gift and sign of gratitude. When offered to try the stew, I was super eager and super thankful that the mother took the time to make such a delicate dish. Unfortunately, I forgot that, unlike the UNICEF volunteers, my body was not yet adjusted to or prepared to eat something local that was fresh. That being said, I was out from the mission for a day as my body was learning to adjust to something new. I learned to listen to the advice from those who had been on programs before, and even though you may be super keen to try something new, there are some precautions for a reason. However, there is nothing wrong with wanting to try new things.
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?
First off, I think I would say that everyone involved with Operation Smile that I have met has had some influence on me, big or small. Whether that be student volunteers whom I’ve always considered friends of mine, or staff members who feel like family. I would say one of my biggest mentors is Bethany Bogacki, who serves as Operation Smile Student Programs’ content manager. However, before I knew her in that position, she served as my medical mission trip sponsor during my time in Ghana. I was a senior in high school about to have an experience of a lifetime. Although I had little fear venturing out on my own, Bethany provided comfort to me throughout the trip when I was experiencing emotional highs after interacting with patients and stayed with me while I got sick for a day. She became like a big-sister figure to me on my trip and gave me the realization that Operation Smile is not just an organization you are a part of, it is a family and a community. Bethany even pushed me to chase my passion as a journalist while she mentored me through the U-Voice training program with Operation Smile, where college students are trained to capture stories of the organization’s patients and volunteers. Jennifer McKendree is another staff member who worked as head of Student Programs who also just consistently encouraged me and radiated positivity. All the staff members I’ve had the pleasure of knowing are holding you up the entire journey. You are never alone.
As far as cheerleaders, I would say that my mom has always been my biggest cheerleader. She sees how excited I get when I start talking about Operation Smile to other people and how much dedication I have put toward the organization, not because I have to but because I love to. She has the kindest heart that I have met, and I am so grateful to have her as an example in my life as to what a graceful and kind woman is.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Since I already told the story about the sweet boy that I met in Ghana, I will tell you another one. On my first day at the mission site, during the first day of screening, I met a family who brought their son in hopes of repairing a cleft condition that was worked on when he was younger. The family had explained that as their son got older, his palate sutures had opened a little and had caused him to develop a speech impediment. Fortunately, the son did not require surgery but did require speech pathology, and he was referred to a center closer to his home. It made me realize that even when Operation Smile cannot provide surgeries due to certain restrictions, they will still do whatever they can in their power to provide the most effective care and provide for patients they interact with, in any way possible. I still keep in contact with the family to this day, and I will forever cherish the kindness they showed to me and the staff even when they were unable to receive surgery.
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 as a community, there has to be increased educational opportunities about women’s health for all genders, and I think in order to educate others, you need to educate yourself first. Whether that means reading articles about women’s health or supporting organizations such as Operation Smile that are piloting programs like the Dignity Project. Know your resources, and use those resources to your advantage so that you can provide equal opportunities to women around the world.
- As a society, I think we need to take away the stigma that surrounds being born with unique features. Our society focuses too much, in some cases solely, on the physical attributes that make up a person. I know it sounds so cliché, but the most important thing that a person can offer is their heart and kindness. You will remember more about how someone treated you than what they looked like, and the same goes for how other people will remember you. So, simply, be kind. It takes a whole lot more energy to be unkind.
- When it comes to politicians, worldwide, I think there need to be some changes to the availability of sanitary products for women. Not only here in the U.S., but in other countries. In the U.S., we still have a majority of states that have a “pink tax,” where sanitary products for women have special taxes and prices placed on them. In other countries, such as the ones where the Dignity Project is set out to travel to, sanitary products may not even be available, let alone education surrounding women’s health. Women’s reproductive systems create the next generation, and in order to do so, they experience menstrual cycles. In order to continue normal daily activities, such as attending school and receiving an education, sanitary products must be available and at a reasonable price.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
1. Say yes to everything that you can handle. There are so many opportunities and experiences that can arise from one “yes.” For example, this interview. I think that this is such a unique opportunity for someone at my age to be featured here, and I am so thankful for the opportunity. When you turn down offers out of fear or the unknown, nothing will be gained but an opportunity may be lost.
2. Treat everyone as an ally. If you go through the world thinking that people are out to get you, or if you assume the worst of people, I promise you that it will weigh you down and bother you more than anyone else involved. Give people the benefit of the doubt because people need it more than we may think.
3. Use your resources. I think that a lot of things that I do in my life I think that I can handle on my own and that I am fully capable to accomplish as solo missions. The truth is, though, that people need people; and that goes with every aspect of life. Yes, you are strong as an individual, but that does not mean you are weak when you are dependent upon others.
4. Surround yourself with like-minded people. When it comes to starting an organization or a program, it is so vital to have people who are on board with you and who will pick up the pace and do their part when needed. You have to work as a team, and it helps when people are just as motivated as you, if not more.
5. Keep an open mind. This is my biggest piece of advice, and one that I continue to learn and work on. Although it is great to work with like-minded people, having different opinions, thoughts, and feelings provides perspectives that you may have never thought of. And the truth is, opinions are opinions, and they are not solid facts. So, respect other opinions even if they do not fall in line with your own.
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 once you are a part of making a positive impact on the world outside of you, no matter how big or how small, you will truly feel a part of something bigger than you. Life is small and you have got one shot. There is something to be said about how inspiring and motivating it is when you realize that you have impacted another human being’s life. If you can affect just one person, in a positive way, I would say that you’ve had a successful life.
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 there was one person that I could have breakfast with ever, it would be Audrey Hepburn because of her work in philanthropy and the kindness that she preached. However, unfortunately, that would be impossible. So, if I could have someone with me for a nice brunch, realistically, it would be Malala Yousafzai. I think she is a strong female role model in our world today who displayed courage and perseverance through unspeakable events. Even more so, she is a current activist for educational opportunities for females, a common interest of the Dignity Project. I truly believe she would offer advice wise beyond her years and a conversation that would address social issues that still exist worldwide.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on my personal Instagram @madisyn__lee, follow Operation Smile on their main account @operationsmile, follow Operation Smile’s Student Programs @osstudpro, or contact me at my personal email at email@example.com. Always feel free to reach out!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!