Local teen steps out of Malibu and gets a lesson in life.
By Kim Devore / The Malibu Times
Many teens spend their summer the usual way, sunning at the beach, shopping at the mall, texting, tweeting and surfing the net. But not Reilly Anspaugh. Instead of loading up on the latest shades of OPI nails, Havaianas flip-flops and H & M minis, Anspaugh’s go-to items this summer were scrubs, surgical masks and booties.
In the trip of a lifetime, Anspaugh set off on a decidedly unglamorous medical mission to Nicaragua with her decidedly glamorous mother, actress Roma Downey. They spent a week with local volunteers for Operation Smile, an organization that works worldwide to restore health and dignity to children born with facial deformities. Downey has worked tirelessly as an Operation Smile spokesperson and she wanted her 14-year-old daughter to share in the experience.
“We were at a working hospital and Reilly really rolled up her sleeves and got in there,” Downey said.
The pair not only witnessed several corrective surgeries, but Anspaugh also played an important role outside the O.R. She bonded with anxious children, serenading them with her guitar, teaching them to color with crayons and using her Spanish skills to communicate.
“What touched me was spending time with the kids,” Anspaugh said. “You could see how nervous they were. The guitar calmed them down. I let them know they were in a safe place and got to reassure them in Spanish about how beautiful they would be.”
Anspaugh met desperate mothers and children who had traveled on hot dusty roads for days, some by bus and others by foot, for a chance to have their child receive corrective surgery and lead a normal life. Each and every family had a story.
“We bonded with a little boy called Eduardo and his mom who shared all her fears that he would never have a real smile, never be able to eat properly, never be able to kiss a girl. All the things we take for granted,” Downey said. “If they learn to speak without a palate, they sound like they are retarded. In many of these cultures the deformity is viewed as a curse. Some kids even come in with paper bags over their heads.”
Eduardo’s mother was thrilled when her child was selected and after the operation, the little boy was transformed.
“We had the privilege of handing Eduardo back to his mom. To be witness to that moment is truly miraculous,” Downey said.
For Anspaugh, it was an unforgettable experience.
“As the days progressed, I realized how special Operation Smile is and how lucky we are. I could spend money on stuff or buy new clothes, but here you are really making a difference. It was a great experience that we could share as a family and share with other families.”
Of course, her mother couldn’t be more proud. “We are blessed to have a teenage girl who is concerned with something other than herself.”
In addition to playtime, Downey and Anspaugh did whatever they could, fetching water or putting out lunches. The two also shot a fundraising video to raise awareness and attract donations. Anspaugh also plans on setting up an Operation Smile group at her school and together with her brother will perform at the Operation Smile gala on Sept. 24.
Thanks to her stepfather, “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett, Anspaugh has been able to travel to many countries throughout the world. But it’s this journey to Nicaragua that made a lasting impression.
“It was emotional,” she said. “There were long hot days, but it was so worth it. We were there to make a difference in other people’s lives, but it was our lives that changed.”