NEW KDHamptons Travel Diary: Lisa Lori & Operation Smile in Panama



Lisa Lori (in white) with husband Mat, son Zachary and friend Kathy Van Zeeland



Creating the KDHamptons Travel Diary section has really been an incredible addition to our webzine. What an amazing, global journey we all have been taken on vicariously through the words of our fellow Hamptonites over the past eight months! Whether it was skiing the glaciers of the French alps with Mark Addison, riding camels with yours truly in Abu Dhabi, experiencing an emotional firsthand account of the Boston Marathon bombings with KDHamptons intern Marie Goldstein, or sharing a miracle smile with Lisa Lori in Panama below…..I am constantly reminded of the fact that our community is truly comprised of an inimitable mix of authentic, fascinating people who keep me writing till my fingers tire. Below, Lisa Lori shares her journey with Operation Smile:



Operation Smiles group of volunteers descend upon Panama



Lisa shares: On April 19th through 24th, my husband Mat, my oldest son Zachary, and my dear friend Kathy Van Zeeland flew to Panama for our first medical mission with Operation Smile. We were honored to be included in the mission called ‘Operacion Sonrisa’ that had more than 150 medical professionals, high school students, coordinators and volunteers. Operation Smile, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the largest volunteer-based medical charity providing free surgical care to children born with cleft lip and cleft palate and other facial deformities. They work in more than 60 countries to ensure that every child, no matter where they are born, has the chance to smile.



A shelter mother comforts her son with his "Griffin" bear



Beds at the shelter where patients stay before and after surgery



For the small group I was traveling with this was a deeply personal journey. My family has been supporting Operation Smile for more than three and half years. We were inspired to support the organization by my own children’s surgeon, Dr. Ronald Zuker, a medical volunteer for Operation Smile. After receiving life changing surgery to help them smile, we were committed to helping other children smile.



Operation Smile came into Panama 22 years ago after the fall of Noriega and is now a self sustaining effort staffed completely with Panamanians



This trip to Panama was a wonderful opportunity for us to personally hand out the bears to children. Our journey began with a flight on Panama’s Copa Airlines into Panama City, a thriving city that was featured just last week on the cover of the NY Times Travel section as one of the most exciting places to visit in Latin America. Our final destination was David, Panama, the third largest city in Panama. We stayed at the just opened Waldorf Astoria [below] located in the trendy Calle Uruguay section and ate at the hotel’s Brio Brasserie restaurant which was terrific. The next morning we took a quick 35 minute flight over Panama’s beautiful mountain ranges to David [pronounced Daveed] our destination.



Waldorf Astoria Hotel Panama (image via Waldorf Astoria)



Panama is a hot and humid climate with a calm and reserved people (now I know where Marina Rivera gets his demeanor). David is very much a work in progress and what you might expect of the developing world. Our hotel where the majority of the volunteers stayed was the Gran National. It had hand carved wood doors and a warm and friendly staff, but was definitely rustic. All volunteers pay their own expenses. Dinners were hosted by Operation Smile for volunteers every evening in the hotel and featured great local fare including a variety of seafood which they are very proud of.



Seafood dinners with the volunteers were mouthwatering!



A little back story: In 2011, my friend handbag designer Kathy Van Zeeland [pictured below] and I launched the Three Little Bears [below] named after my children Zachary, Luke and Griffin, to give a child going into surgery a bear for comfort and to donate one to a donor. Kathy designed and produced the bears gratis so that 100% of the $240 donation goes to help children can receive the life changing surgery. Prior to our trip, Zachary launched a One Smile page to try and raise 30 smiles in celebration of the 30th anniversary through See’s candy sales and group activities, to learn more you can visit



Bear Hug: Lisa and Kathy (top right) with Lisa's children Zachary, Luke and Griffin& their namesake bears in NYC



The medical mission was everything we expected and more. The true warmth and generosity of the volunteers and the patients was really something remarkable. Patients and their families were bused in from around the country and stayed in an open air shelter for the week. The native people live quite simply and many had never before been in a hospital or sleep indoors for that matter. Their colorful dress, cool demeanor and patience are not something we see often in the modern world.



Mother and child post op



Mother Bear post op



"Luke" bear with sleeping child in shelter after surgery



Accompanying us on our trip were the founders, Dr. Bill & Kathy Magee [below], who in 30 years have created an international organization built on love, respect and care. I watched with admiration as Bill and Kathy cared and administered to patients, encouraged volunteers and enjoyed the children. It was an awe inspiring moment to see my son Zack giving bears to children and their families.



Operation Smile founders: Dr. Bill & Kathy Magee,



Zach was thrilled to hand out bears to the smiling children



During the mission we watched the screening process for patients, attended pre op kids party for the families, went to a volunteer party hosted at the beautiful beach home of Operation Smile’s lead volunteer, watched surgeries, handing out bears [a highlight!] and learned firsthand all of the care and compassion that they provide. For my son Zachary [above], it was really a wonderful opportunity to see that other children far less fortunate than him have many challenges as well and we hope to inspire him to give of himself in the future as well.



When you are on a mission like this the camaraderie is palatable, you dine together, stay at the same hotel and endure the heat together but through it all you see the gratitude and courage of people who are willing to trust you with their child.



Kuna mother (native Indian tribe) and child



I am so proud to be part of this wonderful organization and look forward to more missions in the future as well as collaborating on future fundraising programs for Operation Smile. Operation Smile has given back to me, my family and friends more than I could give to them…



Lisa Lori recently received the prestigious Open Heart Award from Jane Seymour for her charitable endeavors



To learn more about the Three Little Bears, you can visit: or visit my Huffington Post blog for blogs from the trip, I have a beautiful bracelet from the Kuna Indian’s, who wear bright and beautiful clothing that I have been every day since and will cherish for years to come.



*Panama photos by Alan Huestis