They are not just best friends but also partners in their commitment to improve the world for others and specifically for children born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.

They accompanied the Operation Smile South Africa (OSSA) medical mission to Mbombela, Nelspruit in 2015 as part of OSSA’s student program. They served both patients and volunteers alike as well as offered a unique insight into the lives of the mothers and children touched by this correctable facial defect.

The van der Merwe ladies happen to understand intimately what both the patients and their families are going through. “Donay was born with a cleft lip and so I can relate to the mothers here and tell them that not only do I know what they are feeling but also that it will be OK,” says Marlise.

This was Donay and Marlise’s first trip with Operation Smile and for the 15-year-old high school student, it was also the first time she had seen other children with cleft conditions like her own.

I thought it might be overwhelming but it wasn’t, and I was able to just relate to the patients as one person to another.
- Donay van der Merwe

Although Donay had her cleft lip repaired almost immediately after birth, she was not immune to bullying. When her parents moved cities to Durban in 2014 she asked Operation Smile to come and speak at her new school.

“After Adva came to speak with us, my Mom and I knew we had to go on a medical mission and it just worked out that the first one we could make was here in South Africa,” said Donay.

Adva Brivik-Prins is the Program Coordinator for Students and Chapters in South Africa. She remarked that she was extremely proud of the student team who taught basic health care modules to patients and guardians.

“The students also played an intricate role in easing the journey of the patients and guardians with the Operation Smile team from their arrival to post-operative care,” said Brivik-Prins.

While Marlise had never been on an Operation Smile medical mission before, she has always felt a deep connection to mothers going through the same emotions as she had so many years before. She even went as far as visiting local hospitals to offer herself as a resource to parents of children born with cleft lip or cleft palate.

The excitement and passion they feel for the work Operation Smile does is tangible and they are adamant that this experience is the first of many. They have lofty goals for the future including fundraising and awareness campaigns.

“Having been able to share this week with Donay has been amazing and we have big plans going forward. You come to a medical mission and it’s a huge eye-opener as you realize just how small some of your problems are in comparison to many of the patients and families here,” concludes Marlise. 

“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President