When Dr. Ruben Ayala returned home to Panama the summer after graduating from UWC-USA in 1992, he didn't expect to find a passion and organization that he would still be involved with more than 20 years later.
Ruben heard about an Operation Smile event at the local hospital. He didn't know precisely what would be happening, but he wanted to help. "I didn't hesitate," he remembers.
Operation Smile is a nonprofit organization that provides surgical corrections of cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial deformities for children in more than 60 countries. Volunteers travel and provide medical care, but the larger goal is to create sustainable programs run by local doctors and health-care providers.
Attending the event in Panama, Ruben says he was immediately struck by the hundreds of families waiting for care and the compassion of the volunteers who assisted them. At that moment, his calling became clear: He would study medicine. "It became apparent to me that health is a powerful way to serve," Ruben says.
He went on to study biology and chemistry at Linfield College in Oregon. He then worked for Operation Smile in Mexico for three years before going to the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara School of Medicine.
Throughout his studies, Ruben continued to work with Operation Smile. Today, he serves as the senior vice president of international programs and medical affairs, managing everything from quality assurance to training and education. "My job is to make sure that what we do, we do really well," he says.
Panama is one of Operation Smile's many success stories, and Ruben is proud of his work as one of its first volunteers. Within five years of its launch, the Panama program was being run by the local medical staff, fulfilling Operation Smile's mission to "train more doctors, help build more robust health-care systems, and broaden access to surgical and medical care locally and globally."
"When you take care of a child, it doesn't matter if the child is Latino or African or Asian or North American or that the child's family speaks English or Spanish or Portuguese or Chinese or Vietnamese or Swahili—it does not matter a bit," Ruben says. "It matters that people are coming to together to take care of a kid.So that beautiful child becomes the unifier, the gift that brings us all together."
Today, Ruben lives in Virginia with his wife Karina, who is also a doctor. His job takes him around the world, and Ruben says he is reminded daily of his UWC-USA lessons in cross-cultural communication.
"Every day you face the challenge of how to communicate with someone," he says, even if they share the same goals. Of course, it must help that Ruben's smile is contagious and his humility and joy in his work is evident. He also exudes admiration for the people with whom he works: "I am a smaller part of the entire team."
Ruben credits UWC-USA for giving him an appreciation for serving others. "UWC-USA taught us so much about service," he says. "It isn't only that you're helping someone, it is that you are becoming closer to those who have similar values and principles, and the beauty of it is that these individuals are individuals who come from different cultures, different countries, totally different ideologies, and still we shared the same human values and ideals. ... So, in a sense, you can say that the best friendships are the ones you are able to forge in the service of others."