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Welcome to my blog. Where I share my adventures in travel, altruistic lifestyle, and photography.

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Voluntarism, Good Coffee, and 8 Stories Guaranteed To Make You Smile

Voluntarism, Good Coffee, and 8 Stories Guaranteed To Make You Smile

Talking about the Ethiopian coffee scene is often connected with talking about Jimma. Without a doubt, if you’re an avid coffee drinker, it most likely came from this little town situated a 6-hour drive from the capital Addis Ababa. And, it’s in Jimma where I begin my day with gratitude in my heart and caffeine in my veins. And, if you thought this story was about coffee, sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s not (maybe a blog topic for another time).

Op Smile does a beautiful job of including surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, speech pathologists, child life experts, dentists, student volunteers, local nurses, surgical techs, biomedical engineers, and photographers to participate so children can get holistic care.

Op Smile does a beautiful job of including surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, speech pathologists, child life experts, dentists, student volunteers, local nurses, surgical techs, biomedical engineers, and photographers to participate so children can get holistic care.


I’m in Jimma volunteering with Operation Smile, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working to ensure that children around the world who are living with cleft lip and palate can access safe and effective surgical care.

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This surgical mission is close to my heart because it’s in Ethiopia, my home country (Hagere). The first time I volunteered with Operation Smile, I did not expect anything to come of it. Now, 9 years later, the feeling of joy and satisfaction I get out of it is unfathomable.

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When patients and patients’ family bring their child, friend, or relative to us, you realize that their story is one of unwavering love, life’s struggle attached with stigma, about trying to keep it together, and enduring difficult roads to get to us. Children with cleft lip and palate are often stigmatized and seen as a curse in Ethiopia and other countries, too.

The care that Op Smile provides is more than just the repair. The parents endure many hardship raising their children: feeding them, defending them from bullies, and these children, live hidden in their communities, often never attending school. Misconceptions leave children with cleft lip and palate ostracized from their communities. You can imagine what this simple surgery (that usually takes 1 hour and cost $240usd) does for their well-being.

That’s why I get excited every single time I volunteer. No matter what country I am in, volunteering shows me human stories are the same. Providing simple yet safe surgical repair brings an unimaginable relief that becomes apparent when you witness a family member see their loved one for the first time after surgery, and when the child sees themself in the mirror for the first time.

Flower is one of our anesthesiologist daughters bunny. She goes everywhere with him.  Follow her adventure on IG

Flower is one of our anesthesiologist daughters bunny. She goes everywhere with him. Follow her adventure on IG

I can’t begin to tell you all the stories from my previous missions. Being in Jimma was profound for me not only because we were able to screen 59 patients and perform 33 surgeries in a week, but it was also a teaching mission. It meant we collaborated with Jimma University and Hospital to train and empower the local nurses, anesthesia, and surgical residents. The teaching aspect was one of the reasons I really wanted to participate in this mission. Volunteering with a purpose means empowering the locals to be able to perform at the highest level of care once you are gone.That’s why I believe in the work Op Smile does around the world. It instills education, provides excellent and holistic care to the patients, and you get to travel the world while you’re doing all that. Who wouldn’t want that, am I right?

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I’ll share 8 special stories that have been profound for me throughout my 9 years of volunteering with Op Smile. You’ll have to excuse that over the years I’ve collected the photos but have forgotten the names of the children I’ll share with you. Each person is important and I ask before I take their photos or share their stories.



1. G.W: Was our last patient in Jimma. He is an 18-year-old orphan boy who is shy and timid. His friend brought him to Jimma because he heard Operation Smile would be doing cleft lip and palate surgery.

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2. Burmese refugees: Many of our patients travel from far away. Our mission in Yingjiang, China was close to the border of Burma and a lot of our patients had to cross the border to receive care.

3. Nicaragua: The friendship gained is always tremendous during these missions. I’ve been able to meet and keep in touch with fellow volunteers from around the world. Often we get to see each other on other missions, and the bond and friendships we have is unlike any other friendships I’ve experienced.

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4. Honduras: Child life plays an important role in helping children prepare for surgery. Often using play as a way to help them focus their attention away from what’s ahead.

5. Ethiopia: This is Sagu. Sagu came from a town three days’ travel away. A group of them came together, and they were all called Sagu. When we asked the person that brought them why everyone’s first name is Sagu, he told us Sagu means God and all those with cleft lip or palate are created by God, so it is a reminder for the people in the village to know even though they were born with this condition, they are God’s creation so they will be named God’s name.

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6. Morocco: Beni Mellal, a town a few hours away from Casablanca, was so hot. I remember seeing patients’ mothers take care of their children wearing a hijab, sitting outside under the tent for hours. They neither complained nor were impatient, even, to my surprise, drinking hot tea. They were so grateful that they would bring us food and tea after the surgery day started.

7. Philippines: When we were in Subic Bay, a former US naval base, we did surgery on the USNS Naval Ship. One night, we were out by the beach having dinner when we noticed a young boy with cleft lip selling locally made jewelry with his mom. We asked if they knew that we were here doing a repair for cleft lip and they had no idea. The next day he was seen by our team and within a few days he had his lip repaired. They gave us bracelets as a thank you gift. It was truly an extraordinary moment for all of us.

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8.Addis: This was my first mission in Addis. I was a newly graduated nurse and was invited by a friend to help as a translator for the volunteers. I wasn’t doing anything, so I said, “OK,” and the rest is history.

I hope you enjoyed this post. I share in hopes that you will hear their stories and see their resilience, and perhaps even be inspired to volunteer with Operation Smile some day. If you liked this story please share it on Facebook, comment, or simply click like. Thanks for your support!.

Photo cred: Michael Isayas Beyene IG:Kiya1.0

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