Have you ever had one of those bolt of lightning moments of awareness knowing exactly where you belong, while simultaneously realizing it’s never going to happen. That’s how I felt the first time I heard about Doctors Without Borders. That was me. I wanted to be those people, to work to end suffering for people who otherwise would not get treatment.

While I’m all about ignoring stumbling blocks, envisioning goals, making them happen, I am also a realist. Dang, even I know it’s not realistic to think I could envision a medical degree into existence. I’m so not a medical person, take me to visit a friend in the hospital and I get faint just entering the building.

Fast forward a couple of decades to a series of unplanned events that took my dream from frustrated imaginings, to reality. It all began when I joined facebook to spy on my teenagers and get a window into the world of my wonderful children.

I started a facebook group about looking for happiness in the everyday, and smiley faces in everyday objects. The group led to a website, that led to a TED Talk, that led to a children’s book. With so much media attention and the resulting website traffic, an acquaintance said to me one day, “Too bad, with all this buzz, you’re not doing something for the greater good.” I’d argue that spreading happiness is for the greater good; maybe someday she’ll see that. But, her comment made me start thinking. How could I align my project with a charity?

I didn’t have to think long before realizing there was a perfect match out there. Perfect on a couple of levels. I’d once been in a bad accident where I injured my face. Nine years and an equal number of surgeries later my smile was restored. During that journey I needed braces and through my orthodontist came to know about Operation Smile which gives free surgeries to children with facial deformities such as cleft lip and palate. My project’s tag line is Spreading happiness, one Smiley at a time. Operation Smile’s is Changing lives, one smile at a time. Ba-da-bing! How perfect is that?!

So I cold called them, introduced myself, told them about my project, and told them I wanted to raise money for them. For every Smiley upload to my site we’d donate a dollar. Four years and a whole lot of Smileys later, Spontaneous Smiley has funded thirty-one kids’ surgeries. Not a ton, but for a preschool teacher just diddling around on her computer after work, not too shabby.

Just as I never imagined my goofy hobby would become a global goofy hobby, I never imagined the next chapter of this story. By my helping Operation Smile, they would end up helping my dream come true. Operation Smile actually has a role for non-medical types like me. Every mission includes two Student Volunteers. These high schoolers have worked for years helping Operation Smile. They’ve held bake sales, car washes, and all manner of fundraisers. Coming on a mission is a lovely way for Operation Smile to thank them but also to take them to the next step—they’ve talked the talk, now it’s time to walk the walk by working in a hospital. Here’s where I come in; these high schoolers are in need of a chaperone. When I heard this I was like the kid in the back of the classroom waving my hand, squirming in my seat and yelling, “Pick me. Pick me. Pick me.”

That’s how it came to pass that a dream, I’d accepted as unattainable, finally did come true.

Last year I spent two weeks in Paraguay chaperoning the American teenagers, holding babies, and comforting parents. The funny thing was that when it happened, it felt so right, so of course, so meant to be. I may not have trained medically, but my life as a mom and a teacher actually had been the perfect training.

While my two students were rock stars at teaching the health modules they were responsible to present, IMHO, it was in their secondary roles, that our real value came to light. The three of us were Professional Goofball Playologists and Lovey-Dovey Parent Liaisons (OK, I admit I made those titles up–could you tell?) We got to know the families, their stories, their concerns—a dozen tidbits, silly stuff like who could be soothed by bubbles or a toy car and serious stuff like who was there with grandpa because mom and dad had passed away. This knowledge, this intimacy, was a big source of comfort for the families. We were the only members of the international team who were not medically busy and thus we were available and approachable. We had the time to explain and comfort as no one else could.

I wish anyone who thinks teenagers are pains in the neck, could have seen how loving, nurturing, and generous of spirit these two young men I chaperoned were. There’s nothing quite so dear as a seventeen year old boy (think saggy pants, hair gel and an iPhone) tenderly holding the hand of his four year old buddy as they walk into the Operating Room or that same young man putting his arms around a sobbing mama as he tells her surgery is all done, it went well, come see your baby’s beautiful new smile. I was so proud of my students.

Only by going on a mission did I learn the full scope of what Operation Smile does, by meeting the people they help. I hope you’ll pop over to my website to meet Gustavo, Tony, Mary, Eliana, and Jesus & his daddy to get a feel for the scope of how Operation Smile changes lives. I feel so lucky, so overflowing with gratitude, that Operation Smile has made these experiences a part of my life’s journey, that their stories are now part of my story.

I’m busy prepping for my next mission. I’ll be off to the Philippines in June. Once again I’ll be doing my part by doing the Hokey-Pokey, wearing a clown nose, and making balloon animals. My staging area, a.k.a. my couch, is covered in art supplies and toys. Some of my former students, now big elementary school kids, enlisted their classmates to prep ziplock bag art kits to give to every child. My daughter is making smiley name tags for all 150 members of the team. I’m just wondering if I’ll have room for it all! Will the twenty-five pounds of Hot Wheels a stranger mailed to me for the trip put me over the weight limit? Should I take one quart of bubbles or two?

Smile. Be happy. Be happier!

Ruth Kaiser

Check out this telling photo from screening day when whole families come to the hospital. Can you tell which of these children are siblings and which two are patients? Just days later, the two girls hiding their faces got new smiles.

Ruth Kaiser is a children’s author, teacher, artist, and speaker about Happiness and Gratitude. She is also the creator of Spontaneous Smiley, a joyful global community of online friends sharing much more than just found Smiley Faces. Through Spontaneous Smiley, Ruth has been able to spread her ideas about teaching happiness and optimism to young children. As Ruth likes to say, “We shouldn’t just hope our kids turn out to be happy, well adjusted adults. We need to talk to them and teach them about happiness, outlook, and gratitude.” Ruth hopes you will stop by Spontaneous Smiley and Operation Smile to learn more. You can also follow her on Facebook here and here and on Twitter.