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A young man sits across the table from a medical professional

Anyone who sees Oscar biking through the bustling streets of Bogotá and walking into Universidad El Bosque with his backpack slung over his shoulder wouldn’t guess that doctors once predicted a grim future for him.

Born with a cleft lip and palate, Oscar now blends seamlessly with other students. Wearing blue jeans and a green sweater with the bold message “nothing is perfect,” he cheerfully greets his friends on his way to the gym, where he’ll lift weights for an hour before heading to his English class.

In his sixth semester, Oscar is nearly fluent in English. He dreams of traveling and studying abroad, perhaps in the United States. His ambitions include pursuing a Ph.D. and possibly becoming a university professor, unless he decides to work for Operation Smile or become a translator—he’s eager to learn French too.

A young man in a green sweatshirt reads a textbook in a university classroom
Oscar diligently studies in university to achieve his fullest potential.

Oscar’s future is bright with endless possibilities and hope, but it wasn’t always so.

Maria, his mother, was just 17 when she gave birth to Oscar. Despite having ultrasounds, she was unaware of his condition. When he was born, the doctors took him away immediately and whispered among themselves.

One doctor approached Maria and said, “What kind of life do you want to live?” He then revealed that her baby had a cleft lip and palate, something she had to accept.

“I started to cry and didn’t want to accept it. I prayed to God that this was just a nightmare and that I would wake up and it wouldn’t have happened,” Maria recalls, her eyes welling with tears. “But the next day, reality set in with the doctors and family members all crying. At that moment, I couldn’t accept him as my child.”

Now, sitting with her handsome son in their living room, Maria looks through photo albums. Oscar, familiar with the story, still finds it painful, especially seeing his mother so upset.

A young man and his mother look at a photo album of old pictures.
Oscar and his mother share a moment together looking at pictures of him when he was young.

“My sister was the only one who didn’t think it was terrible. She thought the baby looked cute and convinced me to see him again, to hold him. And we did,” Maria says. “And of course, when I held him in my arms, everything changed. That was the day he was truly born to me.”

Maria and Oscar faced a long journey to get the care he needed.

Oscar’s first surgery at a state hospital was unsuccessful as the stitches broke the next day. His next scheduled surgery was canceled because he got the flu. That’s when they learned about Operation Smile. Entering the hospital where Operation Smile was working marked a turning point.

A young man and his mother pose together and smile

Operation Smile Colombia was established in 1994 by Carlos Arturo Vargas, who, after losing his son in a car accident, wanted to help children in need.

“The need to address this condition in Colombia was immense,” Carlos explains. “Before we started, there was virtually no support, and parents only knew myths about cleft conditions, often hiding their children from society.”

Initially, international volunteer teams performed surgeries for about 100 children over 10-day programs. Carlos realized the need for lasting solutions and started collaborating with local specialists to provide comprehensive care, including orthodontics, psychology, and speech therapy.

“We understood that surgery alone wasn’t enough. We needed to support both the child and the parents for successful rehabilitation,” Carlos says. “We created rehabilitation centres to care for pregnant mothers, prepare them for what to expect, and later offer courses where parents could meet others in similar situations.”

Operation Smile Colombia runs two year-round care centres in Bogotá and Duitama, offering comprehensive, free cleft care.

The foundation also partners with several hospitals nationwide to reach patients in remote areas, providing not only surgeries but also the same level of care as the centres.

Olga Sarmientos, a speech therapist in Bogotá, fondly remembers Oscar as a patient. She takes pride in his achievements.

A young man sits across the table from a medical professional
Oscar catches up with his former speech therapist, Olga, at Operation Smile.

“Knowing that Oscar is now studying languages at the university and seeing him happy and fulfilled makes me extremely happy. He exemplifies the opportunities our patients have with the right support,” Olga says. “We help families realize that what was once a traumatic experience can become just a memory.”

Oscar’s journey with Operation Smile has profoundly influenced his aspirations.

In 2019, Oscar graduated from Universidad El Bosque with a bachelor’s degree in bilingual education. He now works at an English-language customer service call centre for a major U.S.-based retailer, applying the speech therapy skills he gained over the years. He hopes to move to the U.S. someday to teach English as a second language to native Spanish-speaking children.

“Operation Smile has been pivotal in my life. They provided me with the tools and motivation to improve my life quality,” Oscar says. “Without exaggeration, I owe almost everything in my life to Operation Smile. They were always by my side, from treatment to social integration.”

Oscar’s adolescence-long care is only possible because of committed friends like you who care deeply about children and their families. Thank you for being a beacon of light to amazing individuals like Oscar!


A young man smiles, showing his braces, in front of a university
Oscar has a bright future thanks to you

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