NORFOLK, Va (WAVY) — This year, Virginia Beach-based Operation Smile is celebrating 40 years of changing lives around the world.
Through the organization, more than 326,000 children and young adults have had surgeries to correct facial deformities. Many of those operations were made possible only with local community support.
One of those lives whose life was forever changed is Jose Villegas, who now lives in Hampton Roads and owns Manila House in Norfolk.
Villegas welcomes customers with a big smile, but life for the baker wasn’t always so sweet. He recalled for us how he felt 35 years ago.
“I’m thinking about my future, is so bleak its like I don’t have a future anymore,” he said.
He showed us the shocking photo of himself at age 28. A two-pound tumor protruded from his chin, it took over his face and forced him into emotional and literal darkness.
“I only go out in the evening so that no people could see me,” Villegas said.
In 1985, he was living in the slums of Manila in the Philippines. He had all but given up on finding work, love, a life of his own. Then Operation Smile came along.
When the doctors met Villegas on a mission trip, they asked the people of Hampton Roads to help bring him to Norfolk for surgery. Dozens of volunteers greeted him at the airport, opening their hearts and homes.
“Operation Smile changed my whole personality from hopeless. They give me hope and a future,” Villegas told WAVY.
That future included a wife and a son who now helps him in the family store.
Josh Villegas is quite grateful himself for Operation Smile.
“I wouldn’t be around — I really wouldn’t be here. It’s really part of my dad’s life and story,” he said.
Now, the family is part of the same local community that welcomes the rejected and opens a world of possibilities just as it happened for Villegas.
“They gave me the chance to become a normal and productive person more than I could imagine,” Villegas said.
Villegas had always planned to return to the Philippines but wanted to stay here and help. He worked for Operation Smile as a fundraiser for 17 years before buying the bread house 15 years ago.
To learn more about Operation Smile’s mission click here.