Ariana Dunbar serves as Operation Smile's global partnerships coordinator, working every day to support their offices across the globe. Headquartered in Virginia Beach, Operation Smile focuses on children born with cleft lip and cleft palate in low- and middle-income countries. The nonprofit is also concentrated on solving the lack of access to care for those communities. Operation Smile has programs in 35 countries and volunteers who come from over 60 countries.
Prior to her current role, Dunbar was the surgical program coordinator and while in that role she traveled to Ghana to run a surgical program there. "We had 193 patients come for a screening and approximately 100 received cleft lip and cleft palate surgery. We also provided nutrition screenings and some dental work as well," Dunbar explained.
"We don't just go to provide surgery and leave. We also provide comprehensive care to our patients, including psychosocial support," she added.
Before she made the journey to Ghana, Dunbar was mainly involved in the logistical work of helping with the setup of different programs in new areas, working out of Virginia Beach. She was grateful for the opportunity to travel to Ghana to witness Operation Smile's life-changing work in person.
"It was very emotional," continued Dunbar, who is a rookie on the Eagles Cheerleaders. "I didn't fully realize the magnitude of the impact until I was there working with our local counterparts in Ghana. To be able to see all of the work come together and the positive effect it had on the patients and their families resonated deeply."
Dunbar knew she wanted a career that focused on helping people with minimal resources after watching how devastating Hurricane Katrina was to Louisiana in 2005. Dunbar was only in high school when Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast and after seeing the outcome, she knew she needed to get involved. She volunteered with the Howell (New Jersey) Police Athletic League to assist those affected by the storm. Dunbar and the group traveled to Louisiana to volunteer seven separate times.
While pursuing a degree in international studies and political science at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, Dunbar recalled thinking, "I really wanted to do more to help people in need. I learned that a lot of people around the world don't have access to the safety nets like people do in the United States. I wanted to go where no systems or safety nets at all existed."
Following graduation, Dunbar's driving passion to do more led her to join the Peace Corps. During her time volunteering, she was selected to help open a new program in one of the world's newest countries in Asia, Timor-Leste.
"My main project was nutrition, hygiene, and sanitation education. I worked with some local counterparts and lived in a host community. We worked with families to build basic hand-washing stations out of readily available resources, such as bamboo and wood. I worked really closely with the kids on handwashing and germ education," said Dunbar, who spent a year volunteering.
Dunbar and the local staff started the program from scratch and she was also responsible for identifying future sites for Peace Corps volunteers to reside and to locate work that would benefit communities most. Dunbar also learned to speak Tetum, the native language of Timor-Leste, and served as an interpreter for English-speaking doctors from the U.S. Navy's hospital ship and Tetum-speaking patients.
Whether through her work with Operation Smile for the past two and a half years or her experiences from the Peace Corps, Dunbar looks forward every day to making a difference in the lives of others.