The Cougar Volunteer Spirit is Alive and Well in Charleston

This blog is a project by public relations students at the College of Charleston. Since its inception in 2004, the Cougar Volunteer Spirit has showcased dozens of students who give of their time, effort and hearts to helping those in need. They don't do it for recognition like this, but their stories need to be shared because of their admirable qualities of character and caring. "Be the change you want to see in the world," Mahatma Ghandi said. That's the Cougar Volunteer Spirit that roars through these pages. Click on the side photos to see the articles. See photos of the students who wrote the pieces at the end. Thanks!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

JACOB KELLER – Operation Smile

Making a Difference, One Smile at a Time
 By Michelle Davey
            Keller with children in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Jacob Keller was a high school athlete with big aspirations. Wanting to get involved with a meaningful organization his freshman year, he joined Operation Smile. When he transferred high schools, he started a new chapter. Now, six years after his first exposure to the organization, Keller is the founder and president of CofC’s Operation Smile.

Operation Smile is a non-governmental organization and charity that rallies medical professionals and volunteers. Together, they provide free reconstructive surgery for children born with facial deformities. The most common deformities are cleft lip and cleft palate.

Each year more than 200,000 children are born with a severe cleft condition. These children are unable to eat, speak, or socialize. In many cases, poverty blocks access to the simple corrective surgeries.

Keller speaks with pride and humility about his work with Operation Smile. Through the organization, he’s traveled all over the world – recently Cambodia and India – and impacted the lives of countless children.


Hometown: New Providence, N.J.

Major: International Relations

Graduation: Spring 2013

Volunteer Activities: Before Operation Smile, I built bridges in Wisconsin and in New York, I gave jackets and peanut butter sandwiches to homeless people in New York City. Now, I do a bunch of stuff with Operation Smile… everything from awareness-raising to fundraising to going on missions.

As a high school student, you go and teach kids and their families about nutrition, dental hygiene, and burn care and prevention. You’re educating them on things that can basically save lives in the future.

You also assist doctors during (medical) screenings – to see if patients can survive surgery – often patients have never seen a doctor before.

What do you enjoy most about your service? When we go, we help doctors by distracting patients so the doctors can do what they need to do. We hang out with kids before and after surgery – it’s kind of a stressful ordeal for them. We bring bubbles and toys to alleviate the stress.

What was your most memorable experience? There was one kid in Cambodia who was from the northern part of the country. He was an orphan and had burn scars all over his face and body, and he had a cleft palate. One of the workers (for Operation Smile) wanted to bring him to Phnom Penh – which was where we were – to have surgery. The orphanage didn’t want to let him (have the surgery), so the guy quit his job, sold a bunch of stuff and took the kid to Phnom Penh.

What are you most proud of contributing to Operation Smile? What I’m proudest of is probably seeing the difference we make and the smiles we create, not to be cliché. That’s what I’m most proud of – not the difference that I can make, but the difference anyone can make.

What have you enjoyed the most about your volunteering? I enjoy the traveling. I like seeing new things, but probably the most rewarding thing is just seeing the difference that you can do. It’s just a really cool feeling.

Another cool thing about the organization is that you meet people from all over the world. In Cambodia, I was there with my mission partner – we were both from New Jersey – and there were surgeons from the Philippines and anesthesiologists from India, and doctors and pediatricians from Russia. Now I have friends on every continent.

How have you personally benefited from volunteering? I’ve definitely grown more humble. You just see things from a different light. As you grow, you leave your comfort zone. You work from six in the morning to nine at night, you get a few hours of sleep, get up and do it again, and again, and again, and somehow you’re not tired at all. It definitely helps you grow.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about volunteering? Anybody can make a difference. It’s proven. But you have to have the dedication. There are going to be obstacles. If you’re thinking about doing it, give it a shot. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. If you like it, stick with it.

How do you think your friends and family would describe you? Hopefully in a good light!

What are your plans after graduation? I want to work for Operation Smile as a mission coordinator. (Operation Smile) hires people right out of college, and what you do is oversee everything from working with the hospitals, to working with the hotels that the whole mission is staying at, to getting the medical supplies. You work with everything and I think that’d be really cool. It’s a two year term. After that, I don’t know.

To learn more about CofC’s Operation Smile, email Keller directly at To learn more about the national Operation Smile organization, visit its website

About the writer

Michelle is a senior communication major at the College of Charleston.

1 comment:

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