Life Lessons

Roma Downey and Mark Burnett took their children to the Middle East this year so they could experience the efforts of Operation Smile, which repairs facial deformities of children and offers health services.

Malibu’s Roma Downey shares an overseas medical mission with her family.

By Kim Devore / Staff writer

On Friday, Malibu High School will have its annual fundraiser at Saddlerock Ranch to benefit Operation Smile, and one of the life-changing organization’s biggest boosters wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Operation Smile is made up of medical professionals who travel around the world to repair facial deformities. The organization was founded in 1982 by Dr. William Magee. It coordinates medical missions to 26 countries each year and has successfully treated more than 100,000 children.

Actress Roma Downey has been involved with Operation Smile for more than a decade and has gone on many missions. But her latest adventure was the one closest to her heart.

During the spring break, Downey and husband, reality TV producer Mark Burnett, brought their entire family on an Operation Smile mission to the Middle East. In Amman, Jordan, their children, James 14, Reilly, 12, and Cameron, 11, ventured into an operating room where they got to witness Operation Smile’s good deeds firsthand.

“We talked about it for several years and wanted to wait till our youngest was old enough to deal with it emotionally,” Downey said.

The mother of three knew that the initial experience would not be easy. “It can be shocking to see one child with a facial deformity, let alone hundreds,” she explained. “It’s hard not to turn your eyes. There are teeth coming out of noses, there are no roofs to mouths, and you see children who are unable to talk. I think we can all agree they were a little overwhelmed at first.”

But Downey said the trio arrived with open hearts and was ready to open their eyes. “Our children were able to scrub up, they donned their gear, put on their rubber gloves and from a safe distance, they were allowed to observe the surgery,” she said. “They literally saw a face being changed, and with it the hopes and dreams of everybody involved. It was very emotionally charged.”

Downey asked each of her children to develop a bond with one Operation Smile child. “For whatever reason, there is this one child or this one baby who captures your eye, who speaks to your heart. We were able to encourage them to follow that child and take the journey with that particular child and get invested emotionally with that child’s story.”

Through a translator James, Reilly and Cameron discovered where their child came from and learned their child’s background. That personal connection made the life-altering result even more special.

Downey has witnessed the Operation Smile miracle many times.

“It’s just a beautiful journey to take part in,” she said. “That moment of handing the child back to a mother with his brand new face is like witnessing a rebirth. It really becomes a metaphor for hope.”

Downey said, if nothing else, her children returned to Malibu with a deep appreciation for something as simple as a smile. But she knows that their life lesson went much deeper than that.

“It was so inspiring for our kids to see the volunteers,” she said. “God bless them, all taking time out from their professional lives. No one’s being paid. The doctors aren’t there for fun. There’s no vacation. They’re working 12-hour shifts in a hot room where the AC’s a bit wonky. And why are they there? Because they care.”

The Downey-Burnett clan also helped open a new medical center to serve the area. “I hope that would make our kids proud that we stepped up as a family to do for others,” Downey said. “The five of us as a little group got to go somewhere where there is need and put our energy together and opened our hearts to try to make a difference.”

The need may be great, and at times daunting, but as the Operation Smile mission statement says, it is changing the face of the world one smile at a time.

To illustrate that point, Downey likes to tell the story about a child who came across masses of starfish that washed up on the beach. When the child went to throw one of them back to the sea, a man cried out, “What are you doing? You can’t make a difference. There are too many!” At that point, the child picked up a starfish and gently put it back into the water and said, “Well, I made a difference for that one.”

Downey hopes that making a difference will make her children feel as good as she does saying, “Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I am living this life-that I could be this happy and healthy, and have this wonderful family and this wonderful love in my life. I just feel an overwhelming desire to give back.”