Testimonial Volunteers

Why Operación Sonrisa is close to Bernardo Villars' heart

FIDI’s last charity project became a personal crusade for Bernardo Villars, sub general manager at FIDI Affiliate Grupo Gamundi in Honduras. He told FIDI why it means so much.

‘You cannot save the whole world but you can help one person. Operación Sonrisa has enabled operations to be performed on hundreds of people and now it is exploding.

‘Everyone should get involved with something (like this) – it is our duty. Just because you can read this magazine you are so much further ahead of most of our patients.’ 

Bernardo Villars is happy to spell out the profound needs of patients with  facial deformation in his country. 

Much of his nation, which has a population of nine million (around one million of whom are thought to be living as illegal immigrants in the United States) is desperately poor. 

Very few have access to the internet – something taken for granted in developed countries- most do not have televisions or access to TV and many Hondurans still live in small, rural communities and may seldom, if ever, leave their home towns. Nor can many read.

Villars came across Operación Sonrisa Honduras (there are equivalents in other Latin American countries such as Brazil) when his aunt, Eloisa Gamundi, helped out as a volunteer conducting speech therapy.

Sadly, his aunt passed away following surgery and his mother also became involved in helping the charity. Later, Villars himself was roped in and found he had a talent for organising fund-raising events to help out.

Honduran fashion designer Miguel Chong, who is known throughout Central America, wanted to put on a large fashion show on a scale that had previously not been accomplished.

Villars was able to team up with a large group of volunteers, secure sponsors and was instrumental in putting together a great show that raised a lot of money for the charity: ‘I like challenges,’ he said.

It all developed from there into bigger and better fund-raising parties: ‘It opened new doors; kids would tell their parents about Operación Sonrisa and we got a bunch of new sponsors through that.’

Villars has been secretary of the charity’s board for the last 5 years, a 12 strong group of directors who volunteer their services for free (medical staff are not paid for their involvement, either).

Operación Sonrisa wants to eradicate the condition of cleft lip and palates in Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, but there are several challenges to their mission.

One of the key problems is getting in touch with people in the largely rural communities, especially given their lack of access to modern communications technology.

Censuses are conducted on a regular basis to establish where patients are living, and a recent one established there were at least 800 people who had not yet benefited from an operation.

Radio advertising campaigns are effective in reaching people that need surgery or other support such as speech therapy. Due to the extreme poverty levels, accommodation is also needed for patients before and after their operations, as well as food, and some find the thought of travelling to a big town for their procedure to be very daunting.

‘People are very scared of coming to the big city; they are used to living in a community with one unpaved street and perhaps 20 homes,’ explains Villars.

A psychologist is employed by the charity to help them overcome their fear and build trust in the medical staff and others.

Now, from its humble roots in a small room at Honduran school (where the charity was first founded) Operación Sonrisa is growing.

About Grupo Gamundi

Founded in 1956 by Bernardo Villars’ grandfather, international mover Grupo Gamundi is the only FIDI Affiliate in Honduras.

As with many companies in the industry, the firm started small with just four staff. By 1990, Villars’ mother Susana; one of the three daughters of the founder, was running the business, which now has 80 employees.

Villars himself, started working in the family business in 2001. Grupo Gamundi’s services include international moving, records storage and specialist logistics services including moving IT servers and cash dispensing machines (ATMs).

The company prides itself on training its staff, and most have been long term employees, working for Grupo Gamundi for 20 years or more.