We have all seen the movie or read the book where a chance encounter changes a characters life. One such encounter happened in the flesh for Ms. Makamela Lelaka and Tebatso Magoro, it was an encounter that not only changed their lives but many others and continues to ripple out and touch even more lives.
Based in South Africa’s Limpopo province Ms. Lelaka is one of those all-action members of the community that every neighbourhood needs. It was thus no surprise that word of a toddler with a facial deformity reached her, “I heard people talking about that child and so one day I went to visit the family. I was shocked when I saw him because it was the first time I had seen this (a cleft lip),” she explains.
When her initial shock had worn off Ms. Lelaka sprang into action, her default setting, and began to seek care for Tebatso. “I was determined to find help but was told Tebatso was on the waiting list and was around 150 on that list. I met with a US peace corp volunteer assigned to our area and she did some research and that is how I heard about Operation Smile.”
It had become especially difficult for the youngster who, now aged four, had recently begun to attend a crèche. According to Ms. Makamela the children were extremely afraid of Tebatso and would run away or clamber out of windows. It was eventually so unsettling and distracting that the teachers requested that Tebatso’s mother keep him home.
The introduction to Operation Smile saw Ms. Makamela accompany Tebatso, his mother and another family to the Operation Smile mission in Mbombela in 2009. This was to be just the first of many journeys with prospective patients that Makamela would make.
Tebatso was four at the time of the surgery but teachers and family confirm that he was a volatile and angry child who had been increasingly tormented by the constant whispers and stares of neighbours and strangers alike. Now aged 11 Tebatso is a shy and polite child who lights up when kicking a soccer ball with his cousins or whispering to Ms. Makamela about his latest projects at school.
The 2009 mission was just the beginning for Ms. Makamela, a woman who wraps her compassionate nature in a sense of duty. However in her quiet moments the desire to bring change into the lives of her community seeps forth. “It’s not a job, this is a calling.”
Tebatso received his surgery in 2009 and since then has become something of a talisman to his community and the organisation at large. He returned to visit the OSSA mission in 2015, accompanied once more by Makamela but this time she came with more children as she has every year since that first mission.
Seven years later Tebatso has blossomed into a well-spoken young man who likes nothing better then to play soccer with his older cousins and dreams of one day serving his community as a policeman. When he is shown a picture of himself before the surgery he doesn’t seem to recognise himself.
“Ms. Makamela is one of the amazing volunteers that we are so fortunate to have get involved with Operation Smile. She willingly extends herself to improve the lives of not only the children but her community. She doesn’t have to do this, instead she chooses too,” says Mrs. Tamlin Abrahams, regional director, Operation Smile South Africa.