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A poster boy for ‘Operation Smile’

Jose Villegas takes pride in being a beneficiary of “Operation Smile,” which helped him have a tumor (shown in tablet photo) removed. Villegas is now a businessman based in the United States. TONEE DESPOJO/CEBU DAILY NEWS

Jose Villegas takes pride in being a beneficiary of “Operation Smile,” which helped him have a tumor (shown in tablet photo) removed. Villegas is now a businessman based in the United States. TONEE DESPOJO/CEBU DAILY NEWS

Jose Villegas was 26 when he thought his life was worthless with a 2-lb tumor hanging below his chin. That changed when the tumor was removed by surgery, given free under the “Operation Smile” project, in the United States.

Now 57, Villegas owns a grocery and bakeshop in Norfolk, Virginia, and is married to an intensive care unit nurse, Jackie, with whom he has a 17-year-old son, Joshua.

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“Operation Smile volunteers rescued me from the deepest pit of my life. They did not only change my looks, they gave me a future,” he said.

He is grateful to the organization that turned his life around, serving as a volunteer and donating $250 every year to pay for the operation of a beneficiary.

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5 sites, 9 days

Operation Smile, a global children’s charity, held a five-site, nine-day mission in the Philippines to provide free reconstructive surgery to 750 poor Filipinos with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities up to June 20. The sites are Bacolor town in Pampanga province, Sta. Ana District in Manila, Cebu City, Bacolod City in Negros Occidental province, and Davao City.

Dubbed “Gift of Smiles,” the mission brought together 300 volunteers, among them physicians, nurses and technicians from Australia, Bangladesh, China, Cyprus, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, Paraguay, the Philippines, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.

A total of 145,000 Filipinos were born with a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both between 1982 and 2014, according to Operation Smile. Of the number, about 80,000 have not had their deformity repaired.

Villegas’ case exemplifies how Operation Smile can change one’s life, said Edith Villanueva, Operation Smile Philippines chair.

“And Villegas knows how to give back. He has inspired so many people to help,” she said.

Recently, he joined the group’s mission in Cebu and Bacolod.

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Ugly feeling

Villegas, a native of Sipalay City in Negros Occidental, was 23 when his mother noticed a grape-sized growth in the middle of his chin in 1981. It was diagnosed as ameloblastoma, a benign tumor that develops most often in the jaw near the molars. He had it removed in Bacolod.

A marine engineer by profession, Villegas went to Manila to find a job as a seaman abroad. After six months, the tumor reappeared and grew fast. In three years, the tumor grew so big that it reached his chest and weighed 2 lb.

Since no one would hire him because of his condition, his self-confidence hit rock bottom.

“From an outgoing, sociable person, I became a recluse. I became sensitive, self-centered, depressed and could not look people in the eye,” he said.

He felt he was the ugliest person in the world because people would comment how hideous he looked.

In June 1985, Villegas learned of Operation Smile on television. He saw on the “700 Club” program a woman smiling because her tumor even larger than his had been removed.

He went to the TV station and was told that an Operation Smile mission would be in Manila in November that year. Unfortunately, he was put on the waiting list twice for two years.

Priority case

In 1987, his health deteriorated. His weight dropped to 45 kilograms, had tuberculosis, and was emotionally drained.

On his third try, hundreds of people were waiting to be screened. He gave his “No. 8” stub to a 9-year-old girl who was holding “No. 108” because he thought her condition was worse than him.

When his turn came, he was examined by Dr. William Magee Jr., Operation Smile founder, who told him that he was first priority on their list. “I felt like hugging everybody in the room,” he said.

Villegas was flown to Norfolk, headquarters of Operation Smile, for free and underwent eight surgical procedures from 1987 to 1990 to restore his face.

After his successful operations, he worked as one of the staff members of Operation Smile in Virginia from 1990 to 2006, raising funds for the charity that had saved his life. He traveled to different parts of the world where the organization operates and became an inspirational speaker.

“Operation Smile did not only change my looks, but they allowed me to experience the greatest things in life,” Villegas said.

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