Jennifer Crusco
Communications Assistant

Volunteer Spreads Smiles of Joy in Ghana

Demarest, NJ: “Heartwarming” and “incredible” were the first words New Milford resident Cassandra Keith Garcia chose to describe her experience as an Operation Smile volunteer in Koforidua, Ghana.

“The mission trip was a success,” the Academy of the Holy Angels senior reported. “We were able to make 147 new smiles within the span of 14 days. Being able to play with the children during pre- and post-op was so much fun. A couple of other student educators and I were also able to teach our health modules to the kids and their parents. I saw the amazing change in the appearance of the children receiving surgery. Their bright smiles filled the rooms every day and motivated me to do more every day to make a difference.”

Garcia also enjoyed her firsthand look at the local culture, the beauty of the country, and the kind and welcoming attitudes of the Ghanaian people.

“I was partnered with another high school student from Virginia Beach. Her name is Sonia and she is also a senior,” Garcia said, noting that she and Sonia had previously met and become friends through Operation Smile. “We were also delighted to meet two other student from South Africa who had the same responsibilities. Our tasks as student educators were to present health modules to the children and their families. We created posters with lessons on topics such as dental hygiene, burn care and prevention, nutrition, oral rehydration therapy, CPR, and the Heimlich Maneuver. We mostly interacted with the children during screening, before and after surgery. We played with them and gave out donations such as toys, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and books,” Garcia explained.

Although she has been involved with the Operation Smile Club at AHA since her freshman year, a mission trip was never a guarantee. In order to apply, prospective mission volunteers are required to make a video about themselves, collect recommendations from their teachers, and write about their work with Operation Smile.

As a junior, Garcia became part of the Operation Smile Executive Board, where she took a greater role in planning fundraisers and other activities. She also became a member of the Regional Leadership Council, which allowed her to expand her role with the organization.

Over the summer, Garcia participated in mission training in Rome, Italy and ultimately learned that she would be traveling to Ghana.

“During mission training, I met many other students from other parts of the country and two from Italy. We learned how to make our health module posters and were prepared for a mission,” she added.

Asked if her experience would impact her future career path, Garcia said, “This mission trip has influenced my college major immensely. I plan on majoring in biology in college. In the future, I hope to attend medical school and become a surgeon. During the trip, we were able to watch a surgery. This experience was great because I was able to speak to the doctors while they were performing the surgery. It was amazing to see them transform these children's smiles, and I knew that I wanted to be able to do that in the future.”

Garcia’s involvement with Operation Smile was a natural fit, since she enjoys working with children.

“Growing up in the Philippines, I was exposed to poverty and hardships that people in developing countries face,” she noted. “My mother would take me to volunteer at public schools and donate books and school supplies.”

Garcia said she loved receiving appreciative smiles in response to her actions.

She pointed out that Operation Smile gives hope to children who are teased for having health issues they cannot control. Operation Smile gives families access to safe, life-changing surgeries that many recipients could not otherwise afford, Garcia explained.

The organization was established by Kathleen Magee, an AHA alumna, and her husband William.

“The highlight of my trip was carrying this one child from the recovery room to the post-op room, where the families were waiting for their children to be sent after surgery. The child was still asleep in my arms and I could see the stitches that had been performed in his cleft lip. When I walked inside the room, I saw his mother kneeling on top of the bed, praying to the cross that was on the wall. When she looked over to her child for the first time, she took the child from my arms and laid him down on the bed. There was silence that filled the room until she began to shake the child to wake him up. When his eyes opened, the mother burst into tears. She was so grateful to see that her child was alive. She came over to hug me and was very thankful. Suddenly, all the mothers in the room began to singing a gospel song. Their voices gave me goosebumps, and I started to cry tears of joy. They praised God and thanked him for saving their children. This moment was unbelievable and I will always remember it.”

Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious high school serves young women from a broad spectrum of cultural and religious backgrounds. Over time, thousands of women have passed through AHA’s portals. Many go on to study at some of the nation’s best universities, earning high-ranking positions in medicine, government, law, education, public service, business, arts, and athletics. The Academy’s current leaders continue to further the SSND mission to provide each student with the tools she needs to reach the fullness of her potential—spiritually, intellectually, socially, and physically, by offering a first-rate education in a nurturing environment where equal importance is placed on academic excellence, character development, moral integrity, and service to others.

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