Pamela Sheeran, Vice President and Regional Director, Latin America talks about what the Power Of A Smile means to her.
What inspired you to work at Smile Train?
Before I started working for Smile Train, I spent a significant amount of time working in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Haiti. I noticed that in spite of the numerous dedicated international health NGOs and aid agencies working in these countries, there were still many families in need of basic health services.
During that time, I also met many amazing local professionals eager to be a part of their communities’ solutions. With training and resources, they would make sure the need in their respective neighborhoods’, cities’ and countries’ needs would be met.
So when I heard about Smile Train’s unique model of empowering local professionals so they can provide top quality, free cleft care to families in their local communities, I knew I had to get aboard the train.
How has your involvement with Smile Train made you look at the Power Of A Smile differently?
Now I understand that a smile represents the fact that so many people have come together, all in the name of a child in need of a simple, yet life-changing surgery. From the donor in his/her home, to the staffer in the Smile Train NY office, to the local hospital and team in the developing world, and to the rural community where the patient lives, so many people from all corners of the world all seamlessly come together to create a smile for a child in need. When I see a smile, now I see all of the generous people involved with making sure it can happen.
What has the Power Of A Smile done for you in your life?
It has taught me enjoy my smile. It is powerful, so use it wisely and often. A smile is so powerful that I’ve decided to dedicate my life to helping others finds theirs.
Tuhaise was born in a remote village in Kibale, Uganda. As soon as his mother and father saw his cleft lip, they left the village and abandoned him. When his Aunt Maimuna heard this horrible news, she went to see her nephew. “I immediately connected to Tuhaise and decided to take him in; I had little money and many children to take care of, but Tuhaise needed a mother,” she recalled.
Maimuna is a subsistence farmer on a small piece of land. She knew that cleft surgery was available at the regional hospital, but thought she would never be able to afford it. Years went by and the young boy remained at home while his cousins attended school. Maimuna said, “It was heartbreaking to see little Tuhaise suffering from rejection in the village, my children would ask me to take him to the tailor shop to have his lip ‘sewed’ so that he could look normal.”
Fortunately, Smile Train partner CoRSU hospital was running a community mobilization campaign near their village to sensitize people about accepting disabilities. Maimuna met with the hospital staff; she knew it could be her only chance to have Tuhaise medically attended to. With a few clothes in her bag, she left home and headed to CoRSU.
With funding from Smile Train, Tuhaise received his new smile and Maimuna could not stop singing words of praise to the people who made her nephew’s new smile possible. She recently reported that, “Tuhaise is no longer an object of ridicule in the village, he will go to school with my other children very soon.”
Ednah Wambani was shocked when she saw her infant son’s cleft lip, especially since she had given birth to four healthy children previously. She had seen other children with unrepaired clefts, but couldn’t imagine that one of her children would be born with a cleft. During the first few months, Ednah said that her neighbors in Kamasielo, Kenya would walk by the house and laugh at her baby. She was so upset that she never let David out of the house.
A year later, Ednah took David to a local clinic for a check-up. The clinic staff told Ednah that David’s cleft lip was a solvable problem and that there was a Smile Train partner hospital only four miles away. She knew she would never be able to afford David’s cleft surgery on her grocery clerk salary, but after a short evaluation she was overcome with joy to find that David was eligible for a Smile Train sponsored free cleft surgery.
When surgery day arrived, Ednah carried David on her back for the four mile trip because she did not have money for transportation. The moment David emerged from the operating theater she said that it all was worth it because now her baby would not have to live in shame.
On a recent follow-up visit to the Smile Train partner hospital, Ednah reported, “The village has stopped laughing at us, everyone was delighted to see how healthy David looks – now he will be included in our village society.”
Peter Ojok was born with a bilateral cleft lip in Kabar, Uganda. The name ‘Ojok’ in Uganda literally translates to ‘cursed by god’. Peter’s father passed away when he was young, and his mother Sophia was left to raise Peter and his four siblings alone.
When Peter became old enough to attend school, he was denied entry because of the village’s social stigma toward clefts. Sophia recalls that people always treated the family differently after Peter was born, “they said he was a sign of our family’s bad luck.”
After years of saving her money, Sophia found a nearby medical facility that would operate on Peter’s cleft lip. This non-Smile Train affiliated hospital completed the cleft surgery, but it was unsuccessful. Sophia did not know what to do, she didn’t have enough money for another surgery.
Peter after his Smile Train surgery
Fortunately, Smile Train partner hospital CoRSU held a community outreach campaign in Gulu District, Uganda and outreach workers soon referred Peter to CoRSU for his free cleft repair surgery. In March 2015, Smile Train partner surgeon Dr. George Galiwango completed a stunning cleft repair that left Peter’s mother in disbelief.
14-year-old Peter also benefits from free dental care at the newly established dental clinic at CoRSU. Now that the surgeries are complete he plans to fulfill his greatest desire of attending school alongside of his siblings.
Monica was born with a cleft lip and palate in Snohomish, Washington. As an infant she had to stay in the hospital for months because of her many medical complications. Since then she has had five surgeries pertaining to her cleft, but with strength and determination, Monica made it through it all and is now a healthy student at Glacier Peak High School.
Monica joined her school’s Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) with the idea to start a fundraiser for less fortunate children with clefts and Smile Train. In the fundraiser’s first year Monica was able to raise enough for money one surgery.
This year, now as Vice President of Community Service for FBLA, Monica had the opportunity to give a presentation in her school’s auditorium about Smile Train and her own personal story. In her speech Monica says, “…a smile is a symbol of peace, happiness, and love.”
“Over my lifetime I have changed from a person who stood on the sidelines and watched life move around me…to a person who took control of my own destiny. I can say that I am a lot better for it. I was blessed with the opportunity when I received my lifesaving surgery and have had family, friends, and mentors who have supported me throughout my entire life. It is an honor to be able to come to this phenomenal school and stand up on this stage in front of you all today. Unfortunately, those blessings aren’t universal. There are children who get turned away from ever going to school and whose families abandon them.”
Watch Monica’s full presentation here.
This year her school raised enough money for more than six children to get new smiles. Monica says, “Over these past two years, it has been an honor to be able to share Smile Train’s mission and to be able to support an amazing organization that not only gives the gift of a smile, but a gift of hope.”
Sara Rezk, from Fairfax VA is a mother of two, and her youngest, Seleem, was born with a unilateral cleft lip and palate. Here’s what the Power Of A Smile means to her.
If you could give one piece of advice to a child with cleft what would it be?
CELEBRATE WHO YOU ARE! You are amazing children who will have to go through some additional hardships in life. The cleft you were born with does not define who you can or cannot be. Find your passion and run with it.
If you could give one piece of advice to another parent whose child was born with cleft what would it be?
With all the madness and emotions that come with a cleft diagnosis, hang in there. One day you will look back and miss your little one’s wide smile so much! This whole journey will not only empower you as parents, it will have a lasting impact on the family as a whole.
What makes you smile?
Seeing my child being so brave. Nothing gets in his way! At just 2, he is already inspiring so many people around him.
What did your child being born with a cleft teach you about life?
That we really shouldn’t just see people at face value. This is a very diverse world and we need to embrace everyone around us, whether a different culture, appearance, life style, beliefs or religion.
What does the “Power of a Smile” mean to you/ why do you think it’s so important?
Power of a Smile means hope and connection!
What has the “Power of a Smile” done for you in your life?
It has broken barriers and given me the chance to get to know so many amazing people.
In her own words, former Smile Train patient, Tayaba Humayun, explains how her strength and determination helped her overcome various obstacles growing up with a cleft lip and palate, and how these challenges made her the successful person she is today.
How did you first hear about Smile Train?
I first heard about Smile Train when I was operated on by a Smile Train partner surgeon in Peshwar, Pakistan. I was very inspired by the way that the team treated me. The love and care they showed motivated me to keep my determination high and this ultimately helped me in my recovery. Since then I’ve kept myself updated on Smile Train via the Internet.
What was growing up with an unrepaired cleft like?
My parents were puzzled as this was a totally new situation for them to deal with, being their first child. Growing up, my unrepaired cleft impacted my communication with others. Except for my parents and close friends, most people had trouble understanding my speech.
The journey of my surgeries started when I was only 7 days old. In 2005, I had my osteotomy surgery which lasted 11 hours and was life changing for me. It greatly improved my looks, and I started loving myself and becoming more confident than ever. But there was still more work to be done.
A few years later, I had my first palate repair and first rhinoplasty. Almost instantly people began to notice changes in my speech. My family and friends’ kind words of encouragement made me forget all the pains of the surgery. Throughout my life my parents have been my biggest supporters. They never let me down, and they always gave me hope, strength, and determination in my life.
What are you up to now?
I take it as a challenge when people doubt my abilities and it has motivated me to show them that I can do it. People used to ask me if I was even capable of studying. I have completed my Bachelors in Computer Science, and am currently enrolled in receiving MBA at the University of Peshawar. Besides studies, I am working full time as an IT Implementation Officer. I am also serving as a Social Media Ambassador for Smile Train and recently joined the National Youth Assembly as a member.
What does the Power Of A Smile mean to you?
A smile is the greatest power that anyone can have. It’s a life changing phenomena. Your smile can do miracles that no magic in the world can do. Every day I start my day with the aim of spreading smiles to others. Although it took countless efforts to make my smile perfect, in return these efforts contributed to letting me bring smiles to others’ faces.
My advice to any child who is dealing with a cleft lip and palate issue is that no one can undermine you besides you yourself. No hurdle can stop you in achieving your dreams if you have commitment and dedication. So go ahead and prove yourself to the world. I assure you then the world is yours.