Smile Train Participates in the First Ever Global Surgery Congressional Briefing

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In her own words Erin Stieber, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Smile Train, details her experience participating in a recent Congressional Briefing.

On Wednesday, February 4, I was honored to represent Smile Train on Capitol Hill for the first ever Congressional Briefing on Global Surgery. The event was sponsored by the Congressional Global Health Caucus, US Represenattives Dave Reichert and Betty McCollum, ReSurge International and the G4 Alliance.

An estimated 170,000 babies are born each year in the developing world with cleft lip and palate, a surgically repairable facial deformity. Without surgery, these children will often be denied the chance to go to school, get married or contribute to their communities, and may even be abandoned or die. An estimated 2 billion people lack access to basic surgical care, and many children with clefts are among them. The briefing gave Smile Train the opportunity to speak about this important issue alongside other speakers from ReSurge International, Stanford University, JHPIEGO, and the American College of Surgeons, among others.

I presented on Smile Train’s sustainable model as one example of a successful “solution” to the challenge of reaching neglected surgical patients around the world. Through our partnership with local medical professionals in their own communities and investment in empowerment, technology, and training initatives, Smile Train has reached more than one million patients with life changing surgery in just 15 years, and has made great strides in addressing the lack of access to essential surgical care for cleft lip and palate.

A Miracle in Haiti: Saintelise’s Story

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Guest blogger Jennie Ellis tells the story of how Smile Train worked with CPI Haiti to save the life of a little girl living with an unrepaired cleft.

Saintelise was an invisible child in an unknown village in rural Haiti. She was reclusive, shy, and bound to her home, except for the necessary trips to the market for her mom. Saintelise spent the first 14 years of her life feeling like she was unlovable and an embarrassment. Her parents had never seen anyone with a cleft and were convinced they were being punished. Saintelise was the only one of her nine siblings who was never allowed to go to school. She did not have the opportunities of her brothers and sisters for one reason alone- her cleft lip and palate.
Our team, CPI Haiti, has spent six years in the village of Chauffard, where we have been dedicated to bettering the lives of the people who live there. It is a rural area where we started a school that has grown to 300 students in the span of four years. We have witnessed the impossible accomplished but when it came to Saintelise I had my doubts. I did not know where to begin to get her help.Saintelise 1

Her mother recounted a story to me where she had heard that doctors were coming to Port au Prince to see patients, but they could only see the first ten who came. She woke up in the early morning, walked 20 miles down the mountain with Saintelise to get to the hospital only to find out she was the eleventh patient and was therefore turned away. She was crushed and blamed herself for years that her daughter missed what she saw as her one chance of getting help.

Back in the US I started showing pictures of Saintelise to everyone I knew to try to find help. Then a friend of ours told me about Smile Train. I sent Smile Train a picture and a plea for help. From there we were given an appointment date and our team in Haiti prepared for the seven hour journey to Smile Train’s partner hospital.

Because of the surgery, Saintelise now has confidence and has become an active little girl who likes to play with the other children and now attends church regularly. After her surgery Saintelise was also eager to start school in the fall. The community sees her surgery as nothing short of a miracle. Hope has spread far and wide because of the gift Smile Train gave a once invisible child in an unknown village in Haiti.

Never Too Late to Follow Your Dreams

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Sannidhanandan was born in a rural area of India with a cleft lip and palate. By the early age of six-years-old, Sannidhanandan found his calling and decided he was going to be a famous singer. His teachers and family encouraged him to keep practicing even though his singing voice was nasally due to his unrepaired cleft lip and palate.

In 2001, when he was 21 years old, a friend of his read about cleft surgeries performed by a doctor in Mangalore. Soon after the two traveled to Mangalore and Sannidhanandan was finally able to receive his new smile.

After his surgery, Sannidhanandan became confident enough to sing in public and he began pursuing his dream of being a famous singer. After training in classical music for years he decided to participate in one of India’s most popular singing competitions, “Asianet Idea Star Singer 2007”. With his sheer determination and willpower, Sannidhanandan quickly became a fan favorite and finished in the top 10!

Today Sannidhanandan has achieved his dream and is a very popular singer. He feels that he has been blessed with immense talent and wanted to put his popularity to good use. Recently he visited local Indian Smile Train partner Jubilee Mission Hospital and gave the parents of the cleft children words of encouragement. He shared his story of how he achieved his dreams late in his life after his cleft surgery, and he told them that they should never discourage their children from having big dreams.

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Welcome Home Zachary: An Adoption Story

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Allison, mother of Zachary, a Smile Train cleft patient, tells us in her own words how much his surgery has impacted both of their lives.

This month, Zachary is turning FIVE! As it was certainly a miracle for him to make it to five days, much less five weeks, this is a momentous occasion.

Zachary is from the foothills of the Amhara highlands and was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As with so many children born with clefts around the world, his family’s reaction was to consider him as part of a curse, particularly as his was a severe, bilateral cleft lip and palate. Between such cultural views, a lack of medical care, and wide-scale poverty in Ethiopia, it is estimated that over 90% of babies with cleft lip and palate in that country do not survive.

Luckily, after a rough first week of life, some neighbors told Zachary’s birth mother about a non-profit hospital across the city that could help kids like him. Soon after, he was enrolled with Smile Train. The hospital cleft program set him up with squeeze-bottles for feeding, and with a formula program, so he could catch up on some much-needed nutrition. These measures saved his life.

While every effort is made to keep cleft children with their families, in Zachary’s case that was not an option. I had been living in Addis Ababa for several years, and was teaching at the American school there, when I first heard about Zachary. His doctors knew that I had completed a local adoption the previous year, and I was asked to share some information on the process.  Long story short, after all other doors closed, I happily agreed to adopt him. I brought him home just after his first lip repair surgery, and stayed with him in the Ethiopian hospital for his next two surgeries, as well.Tekola 13_5_10 #2

Now, Zachary is a happy, healthy, creative, energetic, and curious five-year-old. He and his older brother are the best of friends, and together we have all had some great adventures. He loves to hike, swim, sing, and entertain those around him…..he definitely makes full use of his great smile!

We have spent the past two years on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, where I am attending medical school. I am looking forward to being able to help kids like Zachary in the future.

As we celebrate Zachary this month, truly a “one in a million” kind of kid, we are grateful for Smile Train and all of those who have made his health and surgeries possible. As we say in Ethiopia, “Betam Amesegenalehu!”

From the hospital where Zachary received his Smile Train surgery;

“CURE International’s partnership with Smile Train has allowed CURE hospitals to have an even greater impact on children in the countries we serve. In Ethiopia alone, we have performed over 1,100 cleft surgeries, restoring the smiles of children and families that were once considered outcasts in their own families and communities. Stories of restoration and healing, like Zachary’s, drive home the need to make our organizations’ mutual focus on surgery a global health priority.”

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Monica Dominguez Power Of A Smile

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Monica Dominguez, Program Manager of Mexico talks about what the Power Of A Smile means to her. 

What first inspired you to work at Smile Train?

I wanted to be at a place where I could help give kids the most wonderful and pure expression of happiness, a smile.

How has your involvement with Smile Train made you look at the power a smile differently?

You take for granted that a smile is part of your life. Working with kids that are not able to smile makes you realize how important it is that I do it on a daily basis.

What keeps you involved in Smile Train?

The fact that desperation, hopelessness and sadness can magically be transformed by smiles, laughs and love. Smiling is so contagious, I want to keep going and spread all over the world.