Lawn Bowling for Smiles in Canada

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – August 21st marked the culmination of 4 months of fundraising and almost a year of planning by the Nutana Lawn Bowling Club as the Smile Train Lawnspiel kicked off in Smile Train Executive Director Priscilla Ma‘s hometown.

Nutana Lawn Bowlers

Nutana Lawn Bowlers enjoying the Lawnspiel

Lawn bowling, or bowls, dates back to the 13th century and has filled the lives of its players with joy for so long that it’s only natural that it would be used to create smiles for desperate children that suffer from unrepaired clefts. Led by Freda Toffolo, Jack Wigham, Janelle Phillips, Karen Cranston, and Krista Ford, the Nutana LBC’s summer finale was a riveting success. In front of family, friends, and spectators, 14 teams of 3 competed throughout the day for Smile Train. Entry fees for the event, an auction sponsored by local businesses, and a generous matching donation capped off the summer’s fundraising for a total of over $13,000!

A retired Speech-Language Pathologist, Freda Toffolo knows firsthand the life changing effects of cleft surgery and follow up care. When she saw an advertisement for Smile Train last year, she knew that she had to do everything in her power to help children in developing countries whose families are too poor to afford cleft surgery. It didn’t take much convincing to get her fellow lawn bowlers to agree.

We launched the fundraiser in May because that is Speech and Hearing Month. My colleagues identified a mother with a daughter who had a repaired cleft lip and palate and the three of us were interviewed for an article. This was the catalyst for getting donations. After it appeared in the paper we received donations almost on a daily basis.”

– Freda Toffolo, Nutana LBC President

Saskatoon groups come together to suppport Smile Train

Theresa Ma (mother of Smile Train's Priscilla Ma) and LBC President Freda Toffolo

To help decrease the costs of the event, food was graciously prepared by the Hindu Society of Saskatchewan, the Saskatoon Chinese Ladies Association and Charlie`s Seafood Market. Through the Chinese Ladies Association, Priscilla’s mother, Theresa Ma even got in on the action, providing over 200 handmade Chinese savory pastries. Beautiful skies, bright smiles, homemade food, and a fierce but friendly competition all came together to give desperate children free cleft lip and palate surgery and a second chance at a life.

Thanks to everyone who competed, sponsored, volunteered for and participated in this event for helping to make so many children smile.

4th Annual Denver Improv for Smile Train

Last week 7 improv comedy troupes gathered for five amazing shows in support of Smile Train. We are pleased to have the event’s organizer, Heather Clisby, as our first Smile Train Guest Blogger.

Denver, CO – If you’ve ever watched TV’s ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ or had an odd cousin that talked to himself, then you’re familiar with the spontaneous insanity of comedy improv, the fine (sometimes crude) art of Make Stuff Up and Hope It’ll Be Funny. And I speak for all comedy improv performers when I say: Honest to god, we can’t help it. Why? Because it feels like flying, minus TSA and barf bags.

The Denver WigsA while back, I approached my Denver-based comedy troupe, Rodents of Unusual Size, and said simply, “Let’s do a benefit show for Smile Train. We make people laugh here in Denver. Why not make them smile in other countries?” Since the first rule of improv is to say “Yes, and…” to everything, they had no choice in the matter. And just like that, an annual tradition was born.

What began as a singular effort in 2008 has grown into 7 troupes, performing 5 shows over 4 days. My ‘comedy husband’, Steve Loukas,  and I organized 50 performers, sound/light technicians and volunteers to translate comedy hijinks into cold, hard cash for the noble Smile Train mission. All shows are held at the wonderful Avenue Theater in downtown Denver, our cozy home base.

I was born with a facial deformity (not a cleft palate, a hemangioma) and well understand the sheer cruelty and physical discomfort that such a condition can render. Lucky for me, I was born in the United States to concerned parents and knowledgeable doctors who worked hard to correct my situation. But in remote villages in a developing nation, how is a parent to know about such a surgery? Or even think about raising the necessary funds for the procedure? Not all kids are as fortunate as I was but certainly, all are deserving of a second chance.

And this is what I explain at the beginning of every show: “So many problems in the world I cannot fix – world hunger, AIDS, war veterans – most too big to get my head around. But this! This is something I can fix. This life changing surgery costs $250 – boom. Done.”

When I tell people that, I see their eyes light up. Finally, a solution that costs so little and does so much good!

We kicked off Wednesday night (August 17) featuring the Rodents of Unusual Size and Intentionally Left Blank for some family-friendly entertainment. A line of empty Mason jars lined the front edge of the stage, each with a performer’s name taped to the front – the now infamous, “Jars of Pains.” (Later in the fall, I’ll fill them with homemade apple sauce or spaghetti sauce and give one to each performer.)

Improv Comedians Putting It On the Line to Provide Cleft SurgeryThe host encouraged the audience to put money in the jar of their favorite – or least favorite – comedian. The three performers with the most money in their jar play in the dreaded game of Mousetraps where the stage is covered in mousetraps and the players are blindfolded and spun for maximum disorientation. The bold remove their shoes; the meek wear socks even on their hands. Cringe-worthy? Yes. Hilarious? Absolutely. Lots of squealing goes on, always a good sign.

Inevitably, somebody tells somebody they are on fire and “You need to stop, drop, and roll!” In improv, there are no refusals, a player must say “Yes!” to everything so down they go onto the mousetraps. Yeeeow!

These jars are big money makers for us. I saw one woman put $40 in another jar just to make sure her daughter, Sarah, didn’t have to play this game. (Alas, Sarah had to play anyway and miraculously, survived.)

Thursday’s show was also family friendly — if your family is made up entirely of super raunchy comedians. Players from several local troupes joined to form ‘Gay v. Str8’ which was exactly what it sounds like. About 20 performers – half gay, half not – competed before judges to determine who had the most comic chops.

The last half of the show was done in long-form improv, where a theme is pre-decided. Enter, “The Housewives of Colfax,” Colfax being a street famous in Denver for being well stocked with seedy, gritty characters. Performers create scenarios using these characters and rotate in and out, creating story lines and resolutions. Hard to do and even harder when you have to be funny.

A Talking Crab for Smile TrainFriday night’s show featured Monkey’s Uncle and All of the Above, which produced many a gut-busting moment. It was their decision to turn the “Jars of Pain” into the “Jars of Pleasure” – encouraging people to donate to see their favorite performer in the popular rendition of “Historic Dance-O-Rama.” It’s hard to dance as the Berlin Wall, I must say.

The first show on Saturday night featured Out of the Basement, which included some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. After this show ended, one of the performers, Mark, whom I had only met at the Thursday night show, approached me with a giant wad of cash. “Here, Heather,” he said as he pressed it into my hand, “I gathered this from my family. It’s $175.” I hugged him, thanked him and hurried backstage, to prepare for the next show.

Moments later, I was preparing for the 8 p.m. show and suddenly, the enormity of his gesture hit me hard. I burst into tears, a bizarre delayed reaction that had my headliner troupe concerned. All that running around, planning, emailing, phone calling – and his incredible generosity brought the point of it all back in resounding clarity.

The closing show, starring those high-energy nutjobs, The Denver Wigs, was a blazing success. The house was full and never quiet. The Wigs are run like a very tight ship, captained by the founder and director, Steve Loukas. Steve’s attention to detail and his leadership inspire his troupe.

Best of all? They hand out pies. Not kidding. Blueberry, apple and pecan. Nearly every audience member gets one. (Note for next year: Don’t put the pie table in front of the video screen making it look like the Smile Train kids are trying to eat the pies. D-oh!) Plus, there’s a raffle drawing. Folks win t-shirts, posters, theater tickets and gift cards. And did I mention there are pies?

We are still counting the money from the show and donations are still coming in to our Smile Train page but thus far, we’ve raked in about $2,300 and hopefully it will reach $2500.  Considering the state of the economy and that 99.9% of all comedians are poor, this is a hard-won victory for us. And for the kids. See you in 2012!

The Importance of Awareness

Kano, Nigeria – Within moments of giving birth, Mariya Habibu went from the extreme joy of seeing her daughter Fadima for the first time to absolute heartbreak. Fadima was born with a unilateral cleft lip. Having grown up seeing others with unrepaired clefts, Mariya knew just how tough her new daughter’s life would be. She was devastated to think of how the stigma associated with cleft would impact her daughter for the rest of her life.

Fadima Habibu before cleft lip surgeryBefore this forlorn sense of doom settled into her heart, Mariya was given a lifeline by the midwife that delivered Fadima into the world. She told Mariya that if she traveled from her village to the city, Fadima could receive free cleft surgery to repair her disfigurement. The midwife even told her where to go: Smile Train partner Grass-root Smile Initiative at the Armed Forces Specialist Hospital, Kano.

Not wasting any time, Mariya borrowed money from her friends and neighbors to travel to Kano and on the third day of her life, Fadima was in front of Smile Train partner surgeons. Standard medical practice dictates that a cleft lip surgery should be performed at age 3 months, not 3 days. The hospital staff explained to Mariya that she would need to wait for her daughter to grow strong enough for the surgery. After educating her how to properly feed Fadima and on vaccinations her baby would need, the staff sent her home with a follow up date.

Mariya and Fadima Habibu after Fadima's free cleft lip surgerySure enough, Mariya arrived early to make sure that the doctors hadn’t forgotten about little Fadima. Fadima received free cleft surgery later that day. When Mariya and Fadima were discharged, Mariya gave her undying thanks to the Smile Train doctors, medical staff, and “all of the nice people who she would never meet” that paid for her daughter’s surgery. She promised to continue to tell everyone she came across that clefts are not a curse and that they can be repaired for free, just as her midwife had done months before.

Rodolpho’s New Smile

Sucre, Bolivia– Rodolpho Picha Picón recently received a belated first birthday gift that he will never remember, but will change his life forever: free cleft lip surgery.

Smile Train Cleft Lip Patient and his MotherRodolpho was born on May 11, 2010 to Nicholas and Marcelina Picón, rural farmers who have never learned to read or write. After three days of labor, Marcelina held her third child in her arms unable to comprehend what was wrong with her baby. Nicholas and Marcelina argued at the cause of Rodolpho’s disfiguring cleft lip and palate thinking that it was a curse brought down upon them for something that they had done. Nicholas shunned his newborn son realizing how hard it would be for the family to feed and take care of him alongside Rodolpho’s healthy older sibling. At one point even wishing that Rodolpho died so that he could focus on taking care of the rest of his family.

Smile Train Patient Rodolfo Before Cleft Lip SurgeryNot knowing that clefts are birth defects, Marcelina clung to her son, desperate to find a way to help him. Aided by her other children, Marcelina prevailed on Nicholas to accept his son and to journey to the capital city to find help. At the hospital in Sucre, Nicholas was given bittersweet news, Rodolpho’s cleft was curable with a simple surgery, but the surgery cost more money than he could ever hope to afford. He returned with a renewed spirit to help care for Rodolpho, and together with Marcelina, they decided that somehow they would save enough money for the surgery, even if it took fifty years.

Smile Train Patient Rodolpho After Cleft Lip Surgery
A month later, a miracle happened. After getting off of an extra job as a mason, Nicholas met a stranger and they struck up a conversation, which culminated in the revelation that the cleft surgery Rodolpho needed was being done for free through Smile Train partner Esperanza Bolivia. Nicholas and Marcelina brought Rodolpho to the hospital and were show pictures of other cleft patients that had received free cleft surgery. Tears filled their eyes as they realized that Rodolpho now had a chance at a normal life. Rodolpho came out of general anesthesia with a newly repaired cleft lip. He is currently scheduled to receive cleft palate surgery once he regains his strength. His parents are eager to see him safely through his second surgery and get started with his life.

Li Dungang: A Smile Train Success Story

Shandong Province, China

I once read a saying in a magazine: defective children are angels from Heaven. Because God favors them too much, signs are made on their body so that they can be found at any time.
– Smile Train Patient, Li Dungang

Li Dungang After his Smile Train Celft Lip Surgery

Li Dungang after his Smile Train cleft lip surgery

Li Dungang received Smile Train surgery on June 12, 2006 at Affiliated Hospital of Qingdao University Medical College: a secondary cleft lip surgery at the age of 23. A hardworking student, from a family of poor, rural farmers, Li Dungang was lucky that his parents were able to save enough money to provide him with his primary cleft lip surgery as a child. However, as he grew older, his face changed and the scarring on his lip became more visible, leading to taunting and humiliation. Li Dungang found comfort in his studies, determined to forge his own path,

I knew that as far as a rural child was concerned, to do well in school was the only way to notch up a success…I knew that I had to make a greater effort than others if I wanted to go to college: it was a common occurrence to get up to study at two or three o’clock in the morning. Only by this way could I change my destiny.”

Li Dungang now outside of work

All of the studying paid off and Li Dungang was accepted into college. He struggled to pay his way through school living primarily off of a month’s supply of rice pancakes that his mother would make for him on his routine visits home. As he celebrated his acceptance into China University of Political Science and Law, tragedy struck and his mother fell seriously ill requiring him to send what little money he earned on the side back to his parents for her medical bills rather than towards his education. Li Dungang returned home to visit his sick mother and visited our Smile Train partner once more to follow up on his previous surgery.

Smile Train Cleft Lip Surgery Patient Li Dungang Now

Li Dungang now

While he was there, he explained his situation and how he feared he would have to drop out of school in order to help his parents through the even more difficult times. The staff introduced him to the new Smile Grant program and he received a small grant that he could use to help his family while he returned to school. Smile Train staff also nominated him for a scholarship through the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation. He was awarded the scholarship to cover the rest of his education and graduated with a degree in law. With the guidance of Smile Train Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Regional Programs Dr. Shell Xue, Li Dungang was able to secure a job at a Shandong Province Court where he is now thriving and taking every opportunity to help those in need.

In my life, I try to help people around me who are in trouble. I smile at strangers as much as possible, it brings me and them a sun-like warmness and sedateness. Life is a mirror, when you smile in front of it, it will also smile and the same for when you cry. It all depends on your attitude towards life.”

A New Life for an Infant Abandoned at Birth

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – A nurse at Cho Ray Hospital happily carried newborn Hong Binh An from the maternity ward to the room where his parents were staying, only to find it empty. The baby’s parents were gone along with all of their belongings as if they had never been there. She never knew why they abandoned their newborn son at the hospital, whether they feared that Binh An’s cleft was an evil omen or were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to take care of him; only that they were gone and the baby she held in her hands had no home to go to because of his cleft lip.Orphan cleft lip patient with staff before surgery

Luckily, the hospital’s compassionate staff took it upon themselves to take care of Hong Binh An at the maternity ward until he was old enough to be taken to a nearby orphanage. Hong Binh An’s curiosity and playfulness quickly won the hearts of everyone at the orphanage. At 8 months old, he was finally strong enough for surgery and two of the orphanage’s staff brought Binh An to Smile Train partner hospital Benh Vien Nhi Dong II.

Cleft lip patient after sugeryOn July 4, 2011, Binh An received free cleft lip surgery under the skilled hands of Dr. Luu Dinh Tru. After a few days of recovery, Binh An was discharged to the orphanage, his new smile matching his curious and outgoing personality. Thanks to Smile Train donors and our local partner hospital, he has been given a second chance at a normal life. The staff at the orphanage know that with his new smile, Binh An will soon be adopted by a loving family.

A Chance Encounter, A Whole New Life

Nairobi, Kenya – In late July,  Peter Kimani was pushing his bicycle full of goods down the road when a stranger approached him to say hello. On August 3, he stepped out of Metropolitan Hospital, the warm sun beaming down upon his brand new smile.

Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Smile Train’s Regional Director of Africa, was driving through Kibati in Kenya’s Murang’a County when he saw a man with a bike coming in the opposite direction. While certainly not the first time a bicyclist passed a car, something caught Dr. Gitahi’s eye in the fleeting instant that made him pullover— the man had a cleft. Dr. Gitahi stepped out of his car and chased after the man. When he caught up, the stranger turned around. To Dr. Gitahi’s confusion, the man was biting his upper lip. Was the man consciously hiding his cleft lip?  Had he made a mistake in that split second? Did the man even have a cleft lip? Would it be less awkward if he just returned to his car? Realizing that there would be no harm in asking, Dr. Gitahi said hello. The 37-year-old-man smiled back and introduced himself as Peter, revealing his unrepaired unilateral cleft lip.

Smile Train Cleft Lip Patient Peter Kimani KimingiDr. Gitahi explained to him that he worked for Smile Train and asked Peter if he knew that he could receive free surgery to repair. To his shock, Peter responded that he had heard there was free surgery, but never followed up believing that there would be some sort of a catch for “free treatment.” Dr. Gitahi assured Peter that the surgery was legitimately free thanks to donors in other countries and they exchanged information. Before he was even back to his car, Dr. Gitahi was on the phone with his team to arrange a screening for Peter at Metropolitan Hospital. After being picked up and driven to the hospital by Dr. Gitahi and his team, Peter received his surgery on August 2nd.  His excitement at having his cleft repaired after 37 long years rang through the hospital and as he looked in the mirror that his surgeon, Dr. Kimani Wanjeri, provided for the first time, he happily proclaimed that

I might have to miss a few days of work, but it is SO SO WORTH IT!!!”Smile Train Cleft Lip Patient Peter Kimani Kimingi After surgery

Peter is scheduled to return to the hospital for a follow up on August 11th and is looking forward to showing off his new smile to everyone, promising to spread the word that Smile Train does provide free cleft surgeries.

The words that keep ringing in my mind are, ‘I dont believe it’s for free and yet I could never afford it!’ It just shows how many people we still need to reach out there and who are still suffering. Luckily, people like Peter become real ambassadors for Smile Train.”
Dr. Githinji Gitahi