so many reasons to smile
Charismatic Chuck and Shazam star Zachary Levi champions life savers at Operation Smile gala
Everyone knows attending galas and fundraisers can be a ball — literally. But after excitedly waving those auction paddles and politely settling up later, many often wonder what their gala gift actually funded.
Talented Hollywood leading man-actor Zachary Levi, who visited Houston as the headliner and honoree for the recent Operation Smile gala, wondered the same when attending benefits and exploring charities to support. He settled on Operation Smile thanks to founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee’s straightforward pitch: a mere $240 provides life-changing cleft palate surgery to children across the world.
“Unfortunately, there are many nonprofits or what would call themselves nonprofits, but they’re really for-profits — in the salaries that they’re paying the people that are running them,” the tall, dashing star of Shazam and Chuck told CultureMap at the gala.
A life-changing Operation
“So, when you find one like OpSmile,” he continued, “and you see integrity like Bill and Kathy McGee and everyone else they attract to OpSmile, you know that when you are putting money into this organization, it’s going to the right places. I’ve been on multiple medical missions with them and I have seen where that money goes.”
Hard to find a better spokesman for Operation Smile — or, “OpSmile” as he calls it — than the multifaceted Levi (his hysterical David Bowie-wannabe villain in the Psych: The Movie is a must watch). In 13 years, he has raised more than $2 million and connected thousands of supporters, celebrities, and influencers to the game-changing, boots-on-the-ground nonprofit.
His hands-on approach includes the Creating Smiles with Zachary Levi fundraising page, which he launched in 2016 to raise an additional $500,000 for Operation Smile. His work has paid off: Creating Smiles is now less than $10,000 short of its goal.
“Look, this is a very quantifiable type of ask: $240. It’s something people can wrap their head around — and actually see change happening in real time — as opposed to, ‘Hey, gimme all this money to go fight world hunger and maybe get there. Gimme all this money to go help poverty — and maybe we get there. Gimme all this money to help the homeless — and maybe we get there.
“This work is life changing,” he added. “It’s life changing for all of those lives that are literally being changed medically and people that we may never meet in our entire life.”
Let’s see those smiles
Levi’s exuberance set the tone for the energetic gala, which honored Levi and locals Amy and Rob Pierce, Christine Nguyen, and doctors Alice Mao and Matt Brams for their work with OpSmile. Ahead of the main program, guests sipped on cocktails, mingled, and bid on coveted items from the Houston Texans, Houston Astros, LLADRO, Veronica Beard, Lena’s Asian Kitchen, and Valobra Master Jewelers.
Event co-chairs Sneha Merchant, a tireless OpSmile advocate, and Viet Hoang welcomed the hundreds who packed the Royal Sonesta ballroom and introduced co-founder Kathy Magee, who relayed some of the most memorable moments and accomplishments over OpSmile’s 41-year history. OpSmile’s work is transcendent: Since 1982, tens of thousands of children worldwide have benefitted from the surgeries, meaning a new life, acceptance, improved health, and success for future generations.
Emcee Dr. Sippi Khurana, who travels the world with organizations such as UNICEF and OpSmile to help those in need of medical care and basic life assistance, kept the crowd on theme. “Let’s see those smiles,” she requested, flashing her own big grin. Khurana tugged at heartstrings when she called out key OpSmile figures and described what their smile means to her: “Amy Pierce,” she called out, “your smile gives me girl power…Sneha, your smile gives me the warmth of a sister…my husband Ajay, your smile ignites passion,” (cue the whoops), to her children, “your smiles give me pure joy” and to Kathy Magee, “your smile gives me hope for the future of these children.”
“I was once like you...”
Khurana then introduced a moving video documenting Merchant’s trip to Kerala, India with her 13-year-old son, Zaryan Merchant as they followed OpSmile teams performing crucial cleft palate surgeries on patients who are often forgotten in a country overflowing with impoverished patients in need and who fall onto the lowest rung of India’s social caste.
Later, Zaryan — a remarkably gifted and effortlessly poised public speaker — described how accompanying a nine-year-old boy, Rahul, through his surgery pushed the Houston teen out of his comfort zone.
“I was once like you,” he told the audience, “attending this gala, observing my parents donating money. But stepping into these villages and spending time with these children, I realized: they’re not strangers. They’re just normal kids who need a hug, someone to talk to, and most importantly, to be accepted in a society that sometimes casts them aside.”
Energizer Bunny-level auctioneer Johnny Bravo, always a crowd favorite, led bidders on a live auction; a hotly contested item included Valobra Master Jewelers’ earrings and a double ski package for the Operation Smile Ski Challenge in Park City, Utah. Paddle-waving Houstonians raised more than $30,000 in the live auction alone.
Meanwhile, young volunteers from St. Francis School handed out the signature Operation Smile teddy bears — an annual gala take-home prize for regular attendees — to eager donors.
The very best ROI
Later, Levi casually grabbed the mic and thanked patrons, saying he was “literally” honored to be there (very clever). “I have no skills in medicine,” he told the audience, adding that he “might cry.” He urged the audience to make an OpSmile trip, just to simply offer their own talents and witness the change that $240 can make in these children’s, and their families’, lives.
“A lot of us hold onto our money, guys,” Levi said, going from celeb actor into inarguable pitchman and preacher, “because we think it has anything to do with our worth. I’m here to tell you right now — it doesn’t. Hopefully, it’s providing your family a great life, and I’m not knocking treating yourself, but understand at the end of the day, you’re not taking it with you. There are a lot of successful people here, and so I want you to know, the best ROI you can ever have is not more money coming in, it’s changing people’s lives.”
For a gifted actor known for executing perfect lines, Levi’s line might just be the most impactful he ever delivers.
Seen with big smiles in the crowd: Ajay Khurana, Nick Merchant, Mandy Kao, Carrie Brandsberg-Dahl, Dr. Jorge and April Salzar, Staci and Al Lindseth, Teresa Hoang and Michael Minh Vu, Naureen and Ahmad Malik, Arshad and Mona Ramji, Anna and John Reger, Debbie and Rudy Festari, and many more.