HPC Fellow: Ryan Pilkington, Operation Smile

Ryan Pilkington is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow working with Operation Smile. At Operation Smile, Ryan  worked on Operation Smile’s 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. In his blog, Ryan reflects upon his work researching foundations and building lasting relationships.

Creating Change One Person at a Time
By Ryan Pilkington

Operation Smile, I have discovered, is an immense organization. I have been granted an equally immense challenge to serve as a volunteer, a student, and a 2018 Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow. The honor is shaping my future and will no doubt provide a foundation for me to pursue dentistry while contributing to a world of change.

As a college student, I served in Operation Smile’s Office of the President to understand the complexities of the organization and to help foster initial stages of celebrity engagement. To see how a nonprofit functions behind the scenes, globally, is truly astounding, especially given conditions of geography, culture, funding, and personnel. Despite growing up in Operation Smile’s hometown and being part of annual school events and local projects, I had no idea what it takes to run one of the world’s leading medical, volunteer-based, children’s charities. While Operation Smile seamlessly performs thousands of safe surgeries to those born with a cleft lip, cleft palate, or other facial deformities, there is a daily hands-on approach to the humanity involved. No decision or project is executed without consideration first given to those immediately affected, without bias towards religion, politics, gender or socio-economic barriers. The commitment is always to the child, the healing, the solution.

As a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow, I worked as an in-office and on-site assistant for Operation Smile’s 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) held July 16-22, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. While reporting directly to Operation Smile’s Co-Founder and President, Kathy Magee, and coordinating logistics, I came to understand that headline speakers from Amazon, Microsoft, Align Technologies, and the Gates Foundation were far more than simple conference participants. The involvement of these organizations and their representatives matched the very messaging that Operation Smile consistently uses to challenge students to find their passion, to think, to contribute, and to act.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Create Change.” Align Technology — the company that pioneered invisible orthodontics — was the Advocacy Sponsor. I learned that the speaking engagement was a celebration of Align Technology’s “smilestones”, which are the milestones celebrated for each millionth patient treated with their Invisalign® product. I saw that corporate giants can carry as much dedication as individuals.

ISLC speaker Hugh Chang of the Gates Foundation also reinforced Operation Smile’s long-held philosophy that people and relationships are the real foundations behind facts and figures. Stats won’t tell the full story, he said. “It’s that ability to learn from all perspectives and to understand the drive it takes to make it work,” said Chang.

My role in pushing this messaging forward culminated with responsibilities to assist in the production of Operation Smile’s Create Change concert during the conference. We secured the headline performer, Seva, who was a celebrity showstopper for the students. As a former American Idol contestant, Seva traveled to Hollywood as the show’s first Kurdish-Iraqi singer after fleeing Iraq with her family during the years of war. While English is her fourth language, Seva had no trouble communicating her message to the ISLC audience for a night of music, strongly inspiring the students to create change and keep pursuing what they believe in. Seva joked with us later that she signed up for a 40-minute gig but ended up with a lifetime commitment to Operation Smile. She is now planning to travel with Operation Smile to Amman, Jordan in 2019.

I learned that to build lasting relationships means including anyone and everyone who is ready to offer something of themselves, whether a word of support, a talent, a skill, a donation, a service, a kindness. Or even a song. While trying to guide performers and assist staff members on site during ISLC 2018, I was suddenly asked to close the conference with a performance of my own, leading 500 participants in the singing of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah. In doing so amid my loud inner doubts, I realized that this was by no means a solo act. It was a test, through and through, of trust and of the ability to be part of something greater than myself. On stage, with support from conference organizers, from the Co-Founders, from American Idol’s Seva, and from a willing guitarist, I sang and pulled together an auditorium of students who will never forget their week with Operation Smile.

As part of my Hilton Prize Coalition fellowship, I was also charged with conducting research into foundations that might support Operation Smile. I was given the start-to-finish opportunity to identify a funding lead, speak to the funders, draft a proposal and submit a request. With the Office of the President, I helped pursue introductions with different agencies to gain possible celebrity partnerships through online fundraising. Operation Smile and I will continue to promote engagement with celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Gaten Matarazzo, and Taylor Swift, among others. Such goals are notoriously difficult, as schedules and agents can be immovable. However, I had deliberately sought this path with Operation Smile as I feel very passionately that celebrity support, aligned correctly, has the potential to make a significant difference in the world. Social status can and should be used for good.

I am now beginning my path towards dentistry, my first spark of inspiration when I started volunteering for Operation Smile. I was excited to get to know the organization and hope to eventually use my profession to make a difference in the world. For now, I am humbled by the opportunity granted by the Hilton Prize Coalition to improve myself while improving the world. The teachings of the fellowship, meanwhile, will last a lifetime.

About The Hilton Prize Coalition

The  Hilton Prize Coalition  is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the  Fellows Program, the  Collaborative Models Program  and the  Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat,  Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit  prizecoalition.charity.org, or contact  prizecoalition@charity.org. Follow  the Hilton Prize Coalition on  Twitter and  LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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