AS Watson, the world’s largest health and beauty retailer, flew into the Philippines recently 21 Gen Z employees from across Asia and Europe to take part in the Operation Smile Philippines-Watsons Personal Care Stores Philippines’ surgical program in Pampanga and experience firsthand the joy of changing lives and giving back to the community. 

Operation Smile

The young volunteers, all members of AS Watson’s Next Gen Sustainability Committee, joined 20 of their counterparts from the local Watsons Philippines to help 43 patients with cleft lip and cleft palate prepare for their surgery by a team of seasoned Operation Smile cleft care volunteers at The Medical City Clark in Angeles, Pampanga from October 16 to 21, 2023.

The retail giant’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Sebastien Pivet, said staff engagement is a key element of the company’s sustainability vision, which rests on three pillars: Planet, Product, People. “We want to give our young people a voice and a hand in driving those initiatives, and the Operation Smile mission offers a rich learning environment for fostering a caring mindset.”

Sofia Sangiorgi, a mobile app specialist from Milan, Italy, said she was awestruck by the dedication of the Operation Smile volunteers, who, she found out, gave up their vacation time just so they can operate on the patients. “I would want to be like them. I had expected this volunteering stint to be an emotional path but it turned out even better; it became a transformative experience,” she said.

Her colleague from Hong Kong, China, Hannah Lau, said the Clark mission “taught us that if we want to transform the lives of more children, we have to take action – not only by sharing our time, talent and skills, but also by raising awareness on the importance of donating to the cause. I will share my experience with my friends and family. I want more people to be inspired by this meaningful cause and to help out.”

Oral cleft incidence in the Philippines is quite high. About one in every 500 Filipinos or 2,800 are born every year with the congenital condition, which causes disfigurement, impaired speech, malnutrition and a host of other health issues.

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Those afflicted are prone to bullying that could irreparably damage their self-esteem and lead to social isolation if their conditions are not treated early.  For many of those children, though, the only way they could get treatment is through the free surgeries provided by non-profits like Operation Smile.    

“I was in the hospital room with a young boy and his mother,” said finance associate Damein Elish from London, United Kingdom. “They came from a village in a mountain town. The mother said there are so many other kids in the village just like his son but they couldn’t come to the mission site because they lacked bus money.” 

The AS Watson Gen Z volunteers found out that the trauma that children with cleft conditions endure deeply wounds their parents as well.

“It’s the parents that struck me the most,” said IT specialist Yannick Wijgman from Utrecht, The Netherlands. “I didn’t realize until now the effect on the parents when their children are being ridiculed and stigmatized, and they can’t do anything about it.”

Damien Ellish said he could not forget the look in the mothers’ eyes. “I can see hope but I can also see despair in their eyes. One of the mothers said her kid gets bullied a lot; hearing this straight out of a mother’s mouth brought a completely different kind of realization about what they go through and how urgently they need our help.”

The Clark mission marked the 10th year of the partnership between the Hong Kong-based AS Watson, which operates 16,000 stores in 28 markets in Europe and Asia, and the U.S.-based Operation Smile, which runs cleft surgical missions in over 30 countries.

The local Watsons Philippines initiated the partnership with Operation Smile Philippines in 2013.  Its parent, adopted the cause, inking a similar collaboration with the U.S.-based Operation Smile in 2018.

The partnership gave rise to AS Watson’ “Give a Smile” campaign, which to-date has engaged 1,700 employee volunteers worldwide and provided free surgery to 6,500 children with oral cleft in the Philippines, China and Thailand.  “Our goal is to transform the lives of 10,000 children with oral cleft, a third of them Filipinos, by 2030 in partnership with Operation Smile, Pivet said.

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