Journey of Smiles: Yeonilda

Yeonilda Lopez, 8, before and after her Smile Train surgery. She had traveled over 14 hours with her father from her indigenous community in a remote part of Colombia for surgery.

Yeonilda Lopez, 8, before and after her Smile Train surgery. She had traveled over 14 hours with her father from her indigenous community in a remote part of Colombia for surgery.


Bogotá, Colombia—In many of the countries Smile Train works there are places so remote that there are no hospitals, let alone electricity. Anyone in these areas born with cleft would most certainly never have it fixed.

Yeonilda Lopez is a little girl who has lived this reality. Born and raised in an indigenous community in Colombia called Vichada, she had lived eight years with her cleft lip and never thought anything could be done to make her look like the other children. Tucked away in a very isolated region within the Colombian national territory along the Orinoco River near Venezuela, it was by chance that Yeonilda met a gentleman who was working with her community and knew there was a solution for her cleft. He wanted very much to help.

The solution came in the form of Smile Train partner hospital, Fisulab. The team at Fisulab had already been providing free Smile Train surgeries since 2007 and had helped over 650 patients with cleft. The only problem with this plan was that Fisulab is located in Bogotá, Colombia—425 miles and a 14 hours car ride away from Yeonilda’s home. This did not deter Fisulab from helping this little girl. They were able to contact the family and completely organized all arrangements for her surgery.

After arriving at Fisulab, Yeonilda and her father nervously await for her surgery.

After arriving at Fisulab, Yeonilda and her father nervously await for her surgery.

While Yeonilda was excited to have her cleft fixed, she was also very nervous. She had never left her community, did not know what a city was, and only spoke in her local dialect. She was accompanied to her surgery by her father who is the chief in their community and more importantly knew Spanish. Because of this knowledge he would be able to navigate and comfort his daughter through the whirlwind trip.

Shortly after her journey Yeonilda had a successful cleft surgery. While the impact of her journey was great and she did not enjoy the cold Bogotá temperatures, she and father could not have been happier with the outcome of their trip. One week after surgery they returned home eager to show off Yeonilda’s new smile.

Besha Medical Centre’s Cleft Week June 24-29, 2013

Smile Train staffer Jane Ngige (right) and Smile Train Patient Paskali Mading’a pose for a photo shortly after Paskali's free cleft surgery at Besha Medical Centre in Tanga, Tanzania.

Smile Train staffer Jane Ngige (right) and Smile Train Patient Paskali Mading’a pose for a photo shortly after Paskali’s free cleft surgery at Besha Medical Centre in Tanga, Tanzania.

Tanga, Tanzania—Smile Train Africa’s Program Assistant Jane Ngige reports from the the field.

Besha Medical Centre’s Cleft Week was recently held from June 24th-29th. At the time of my visit on June 25th, six cleft patients had already been admitted at the hospital. Prior to the cleft week, awareness creation was done through radio, newspapers, and distribution of posters by way of bus transportation, hospital staff and volunteer mobilizers. A Smile Train-branded van also came in very handy in venturing into the village to create awareness about the ongoing free cleft surgery Smile Train program. Districts in Tanzania the staff visited in the region included Muheza, Lushoto, and Pangani. The staff at Besha Medical Centre are already making plans to visit Kilindi and Handeni districts which are a bit farther away.

Paskali before surgery.

Paskali before surgery.

Paskali Mading’a’s Story
I will call Paskali the old guy who is more of a risk taker than the younger generation from his village. I use ‘risk-taker’ very loosely – it’s more of faith and hope for a better future. Paskali is a 51-year-old gentleman that has lived with a cleft lip all his life. This was not because he did not want or seek treatment earlier. The cleft bothered him but he never had enough money to have it corrected – and later in life, he went to different clinics and was told it was too late to get treatment. In other words what they said was: “This is your life, accept it.” Good thing this did not deter him, because now he has the most beautiful smile. When word came to his village about the free cleft surgery at Besha Health Centre, six patients were identified but were skeptical about the treatment, fearing the operating table. All except him. He traveled over ten hours with a friend who, two days later, requested the surgeon to take a photo of Paskali after the surgery. He printed it, left Paskali in hospital, and traveled all the way back home to show everyone Paskali’s transformation. Needless to say, the rest of the patients hurriedly made way to the hospital for their own transformation!