A Child’s Wisdom, Teddy Bears and Plato

Marc Ascher, Photo Editor and Photographer, Operation Smile

Operation Smile
4 min readDec 10, 2021
Marc Ascher, Operation Smile’s photo editor and photographer, shares a smile with Antonia of Brazil during an Operation Smile surgical program Fortelaza, Brazil, in 2010. Operation Smile photo by Marc Ascher.

Good ideas and good intentions can always be made better with a little insight.

After my first Operation Smile medical mission more than 20 years ago, I was struck that the children who came to the hospital had no toys with them. The parents I know can’t drive down the street without an arm full of toys. I learned primarily this was because of the cost locally of a stuffed animal easily could represent one or two days’ pay. Some sort of international teddy bear cartel, I guess.

Whenever I could, I would search garage sales, ask friends, and scrounge, looking for acceptable stuffed animal toys to bring with me on the next mission.

As the photographer, a gift is a good way to start a relationship. After all, these parents and children are going to see me more often than most during their mission experience. So, each day I would stuff the inside pockets of my photo vest with these teddy bears and give them to the child whenever it seemed to be appropriate.

All is good.

This went on for about 10 years. The dollar store appearance made the effort a little easier.

Marc spreads joy to 9-year-old Paola during Operation Smile’s first medical mission in the Dominican Republic. Operation Smile photo: Marc Ascher.

I had taken on a new newspaper job with a large photo staff which included a number of women. So, of course, I asked about teddy bears.

One woman had a 7-year-old daughter — an only child with four grandparents. A quiet child, and her favorite toys were Beanie Babies. Collectible, not particularly soft, but cute. She had a room full of them hanging in baskets on shelves and dressers — just about everywhere.

One afternoon her mom told her about what I was asking. She showed her the children on the website, explained their condition and that they didn’t have any teddy bears, and asked if she would like to send some of her toys to these children. The little girl disappeared up to her room for a couple hours. Just as her mom was wondering what was going on she appeared with a box with six Beanie Babies.

Her mom said, “But Stephanie, these are your favorites.”

Her response was “I know, but if they’re my favorites those children will be sure to like them.”

This very proud mom brought me the little toys, and they were on their way to Brazil.

On the flight hoping my suitcase was in the plane, at least 1/3 of the luggage space being occupied by a vacuum bag of crushed suffocating little critters, I kept thinking of this little girl’s logic and realized I was doing this all wrong.

Marc’s teddy bears are ready for new homes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011. Operation Smile photo: Marc Ascher

You see for most of the parents and children who came to the mission site, this was a unique experience full of hope and trepidations. Most had never been to the city, seen a doctor, been to a hospital or have been treated with respect. Also endured the expense and whatever arrangements had to be made at their home. In social media terms this would qualify as a “Life Event.”

It would be so much more meaningful if the parents gave the child the teddy bear during this time!

So, my method changed and was simple: After an interaction I would put myself between the child and the parents, slip out a teddy bear from the inside pocket and hold it behind my back. Each time I felt it leave my hand, and I walked away never looking back … except for one time.

Mom’s look says it all as Joao plays with his new stuffy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011. Operation Smile photo: Marc Ascher.

More than 2,000 years ago when the humanities were taught, Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.”

Today we have an in-house visionary who put it this way: “They may never remember your name, but they will never forget your kindness,” says Bill Magee, Operation Smile’s co-founder and CEO.

I know so many do so much and whatever’s necessary for whoever they’re responsible for in a well-thought-out way. Even if it seems small and insignificant, keep in mind a little insight, even from a child, could make the effort more significant.

Marc Ascher, Photo Editor and Photographer, Operation Smile



Operation Smile

We are a global nonprofit bridging the gap in access to essential surgeries & healthcare, starting with cleft surgery and comprehensive care. operationsmile.org