Nina Bolhuis Power Of A Smile

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Smile Train supporter and former cleft patient, Nina Bolhuis, talks about what the Power Of A Smile means to her.

What inspired you to support Smile Train?
I think that more people need to be aware that cleft lip and palate is often a very serious health issue—especially for children with clefts who can’t afford a surgery. I recently found Smile Train on Instagram and I was amazed by all of the smiling children Smile Train has reached.

If you could give one piece of advice to a child with cleft what would it be?
Be self-confident. Once I learned to embrace myself all of the shame went away. You may not look like everyone else but you’re beautiful and strong. Embrace your imperfections, they will always be there, and that makes you, you.

What did being born with a cleft teach you about life?
It taught me to stand up for myself. When I was younger, I ignored bullying by pretending that it didn’t bother me but now I’ve learned to confront bullying by openly talking about my cleft. Once people know your story, they will be less likely to try to hurt you.

Nina 300.jpgWhat makes you smile?
I always say, “Don’t search for happiness, find it.” I think that some people overthink happiness and often miss all of the happy things all around. A child helped by Smile Train makes me happy. My family and friends make me happy. Music and dancing make me happy.


Two Generations of Uncertainty

When Lackson Koliesa was born, his mother Joyce was devastated when she saw that he had a cleft lip. Joyce learned from an early age how kids and adults treated people who look differently and she knew the suffering that lay ahead for her sweet boy.

Joyce was from a large family, including an uncle with a cleft lip. “My uncle had a cleft lip and was called an “ogre” by people in the village. When we walked down the streets kids used to scatter whenever they saw him, they all had their harrowing theories on why he had a cleft lip,” Joyce recalls.Luckson Koliesa Joyce tried as best as she could to get her son’s cleft lip fixed. But her hopes dwindled as time went on. She couldn’t afford paying for a reparative surgery for her son and she thought Lackson was in store for the same future as her uncle.

When she learned of Smile Train and the free surgeries local Smile Train surgeons help provide, she finally found her answer. She embarked on a four hour long journey from her town in Solwezi to Ndola. Joyce was filled with uncertainty the entire trip, wondering if her son would receive the free surgery. When Joyce and Lackson arrived in Ndola little Lackson was screened and cleared for surgery.

It frightened Joyce to send her baby into surgery, but when he emerged from the operating room less than an hour later, she knew she’d made the right decision. Lackson will never have to suffer the way her uncle did.

“You are my heroes” she says, “Smile Train gave my son a bright future.”

Luckson Koliesa (4)

A Journey of Smiles Halfway Around the World

Guest blogger, William Horan, Smile Train’s Vice President, Principal and Planned Giving talks about his recent trip to Vietnam to see our local in-country medical partners and programs in action.

I recently traveled to Vietnam with my 28-year-old son Sean, who is an avid traveler and who has faced many challenges in his life. I wanted him to see what kids with clefts experience on the other side of the world.

My son and I were also joined by Smile Train’s Country Manager, Vietnam Nguyễn Trí Dũng, who we call Dzung. Dzung coordinated our partner visits and helped make us feel comfortable and welcome after our long journey. He also shared some personal insights into Vietnam’s often-difficult past, which made the trip a terrific learning experience even beyond Smile Train. Bill

We visited two very contrasting partner hospitals, the National Hospital of Odonto and Stomatology in Hanoi and the Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children in Da Nang. We toured both hospitals and met the local surgeons, nurses, speech therapists and patients. What was evident at both hospitals was a genuine and heartfelt gratitude for the Smile Train partnership. Both teams spoke glowingly of how our support has made a difference in their ability to treat children with clefts. Both hospitals embrace our partnership model.

The highlight of the trip was no doubt visiting twin brothers Don and Dai (their names translate to “Big Time” and “Rumor”) at their school and meeting their family. The boys were born with very severe clefts, but now at four-years-old you could hardly tell. They both look great, are adorable and happy, and were probably wondering what all the fuss was about!

After visiting the boys’ school, we went to visit their home. The boys live three hours from Hanoi up in very picturesque hills, amidst rice patties and water buffalo. It was incredibly serene and peaceful there. As Sean and I walked on a dike above the rice patties, we were relaxed and fulfilled, and it was at that moment that I really understood the meaning of Smile Train.

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The Story of Happiness

Dr. Meschack Ong’uti (left), with Happiness and her mother, Emina after Happiness' Smile Train surgery.

Dr. Meschack Ong’uti (left), with Happiness and her mother, Emina after Happiness’ Smile Train surgery.

Garoua, CameroonPaul Kimani from Smile Train partner Help a Child Face Tomorrow shares his introduction to Happiness—a nine-year-old girl from Cameroon.

As I was walking around the ward filled with pre-op patients with cleft lips, my eyes was drawn to two, a mother, Emina, seated while sleeping, with her daughter lying on her lap, both looking physically exhausted. I later came to know that the girl was the woman’s nine-year-old daughter, Happiness Betah.

When Emina married all she wanted was a family of her own. “I come from a huge family, seven sisters and four brothers,” she said. All of her siblings were married with kids. But her wish did not come as soon as she had expected, as it took her almost five years to conceive. At one point almost being divorced by her husband.

Hapinness Betah, 9yrs (1)

When she became pregnant it was the happiest moment of her life, not only was her wishes of having a child coming true, but her treasured marriage was not going to crumble. Her happiness was short lived though when she gave birth to her daughter, who had cleft lip and cleft palate, a condition which she had never seen before in her life.

Emina’s life went on a downward spiral when rumors started spreading that she cheated on her husband and that is why she gave birth to a child with cleft. Her marriage on the rocks, she felt as if the whole world was against her.

“We don’t always get what we want in life,” she said tickling her daughter. Emina decided to be strong for her daughter, finally naming her after one month—Happiness. Her fragile marriage could not hold the strain any more though and her husband left her. He could not bear being around a child who he believed was not his as no one had a cleft lip or palate in his family.

Despite all the hurdles, Emina didn’t give up on her daughter. She sold vegetables so that she could afford to feed her. Emina’s and her daughter’s fate changed for the better when she saw a poster at her church indicating a free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries being offered by Smile Train. This news could not have come at a better time. Although Betah was nine years old, she had never been to school because of her cleft lip and palate which impaired her speech.

“I didn’t want my child to undergo more torture in school, kids in the village had already done enough damage, they used to call her names and laugh at her, it made me sad whenever I saw my child playing alone. I just wanted to protect her.” Emina said as she wiped her tears. She could never have afforded cleft surgery for her daughter.

Without wasting time, she borrowed bus fare from her relatives, adding to what she had already saved. The two then set off on a 950km journey from their village in Kumba to Garoua. Happiness was lucky to be among the patients who underwent the free surgery, successfully repairing her cleft lip and palate.

“How can I every repay you? Thank you for giving me and my daughter a new chapter in life.” Emina told the team as she shook hands with Dr. Ong’uti, the maxillofacial surgeon who repaired her daughter’s cleft. “I want to get home as quickly as possible and enroll my child to school.”

How a Smile Created A Personal Mission

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New York, NYSmile Train supporter Lisa Fast shares her experiences with cleft and Smile Train.

After having such a positive experience dealing with my cleft lip and cleft palate, it has become my passion to help others achieve the same happiness in life. A life without a repaired cleft would be unbearable. Personally, I would not have made it through my years of soccer and would not currently be at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sophomore year of high school I truly realized how lucky I was to have grown up with the treatment, doctors, and support that I did.

I initially became involved with Smile Train when I made a personal fundraising page. I set my goal as $5,000. I wrote emails and letters to family, friends, and neighbors creating awareness of the fund. Also, after my soccer games I would recycle water bottles from teammates. Because recycling is only a few cents a bottle, whatever I made recycling my mother would match. In place of birthday gifts, I asked for donations to be made. Between these sources I reached my goal of $5,000 in as quickly as one month. I then decided to bump up my goal to $10,000 because why not continue to help other children have a chance to receive a new smile?

Lisa and Mom2 A deeper involvement with Smile Train began after the tragic passing of my mother my junior year of high school. Because of her equal passion for helping others with clefts, our family created a Smile Train Memorial Fund in her honor. As of today, the total value of gifts on her page is $138,634.28 from 624 donors. Between myself, and now with the loss of my mother, over 590 children will be able to receive surgery. These numbers reflect the impact my mother had on others; she was one of a kind. The community continues to donate knowing how much mother would appreciate it.

After four years of fundraising for Smile Train, this summer I had an extraordinary opportunity to intern for them. For five weeks, I got to live in New York and come to their headquarters office every day for work. It was a special experience to see the network of people work together to maximize the amount of children receiving cleft surgery. I am thankful to have been able to contribute not only from a fundraising side, but also from the business side. I learned about so many different professional roles and skills in the time of my internship. I have been lucky to have had such a great relationship with Smile Train and it is because of all the opportunity they give me to stay involved.

Without a doubt, there are times I wish I did not have to face the challenges that come with cleft. Growing up I had to go to countless amounts of doctor’s appointments whether it was speech therapy, the oral surgeon, or the orthodontist. After nine years of braces, I was convinced they were never coming off. Last summer I endured jaw surgery. To recover, I needed to have my jaw wired shut for six weeks and was unable to speak. I always wonder what it would be like to have a “normal” lip. However, I always remind myself that I was lucky to even have had this treatment. In retrospect, I am thankful I was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate because it is the reason I got involved with Smile Train.

The happiness a fixed smile will bring a child is so empowering and motivating. They will get to attend school, have many friends, and be able to participate in extracurricular activities. Every child deserves those joys in life. There is no doubt that the children around the world who receive their cleft lip and cleft palate repair surgery will go on to live a remarkable life. Smile Train is an incredible international charity that gives three hundred and fifty children and their families an opportunity to live a better life every day.

A Cab Ride Changes a Life

Sonakshi Before and After

Patan, India—Sonakshi Arvind Kamble is a one-year-old girl from India who was born with a cleft lip. When Sonakshi was born her father, Arvind, was terrified. He said, “I was scared and had never seen this deformity so I was reluctant to hold the child.”

The neighbors told him Sonakshi would never be normal.

While Sonakshi’s parents took her to a local hospital for help. For six months Arvind and his daughter would make the trip to the hospital, but they were never told that cleft was treatable. On one of their trips to the hospital, the taxi driver who was taking them knew of Smile Train and told him that his daughter’s smile could be fixed. But Sonashi’s father, a driver himself, only earns 9,000 Rupees per month, about $150. He was nervous that he would not be able to afford the treatment. After an hour-long journey to Smile Train partner Godrej Memorial Hospital, Sonakshi and her family arrived at the hospital to good news—Smile Train could cover the costs of her surgery for free.

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Now Sonakshi, her father, and the entire family are very happy. Her father reports that their neighbors have been treating them much better now that Sonakshi’s cleft has been repaired. Besides commenting on how beautiful is daughter is, Arvind noted that he wants her to become a doctor so she can provide for herself and help others.


Twin Sisters Unable to Part, Even in the Operating Room

Twin sisters Chit and Chun before and after surgery with the surgeons who provided their cleft repairs, including Dr. Jaideep Singh Chauhan.

Twin Chit and Chun before and after surgery with the surgeons who provided their cleft repairs.

Myitkyina, MyanmarSmile Train partner surgeon, Dr. Jaideep Singh Chauhan, from CHL Hospital in Indore, India, shares the story of twins, both born with clefts, during his trip to Myanmar last month. Dr. Jaideep was in the country visiting local surgeons in Kachin, an isolated area of Myanmar, to help train, empower, and foster sustainable cleft care in the region.

With the help of the Embassy of India in Myanmar and the Health Ministry of Myanmar a team of three Indian Smile Train surgeons, including myself, worked side-by-side local medical professionals at Myitkyina General Hospital in June. Together we were able to deliver free surgeries to 84 patients of Kachin State.

Ten-month-old twin sisters Chit and Chun remain the most memorable part of my trip. Born to Ko Dwal Lar (father) and Ma Win Ittay (mother) in Shwegu village of Bhamo district in August 2013, both Chit and Chun shared the same facial defect— a cleft lip. Their parents could not get the condition corrected due to lack of awareness, information, and finances, but they discovered Smile Train through a local social worker. They then rushed to Myitkyina General Hospital where they were admitted, examined, and treated without any further delay. On June 20, 2014 both Chit and Chun received their cleft lip operations at the same time in adjacent operation theaters by myself and Dr. Pritham Shetty.

After a procedure that took about 45 minutes, both girls emerged with a corrected smile that will save them from a lifetime of rejection. Sometimes 45 minutes is all that take to change a life and in this case two lives.

They shared a womb, shared cleft deformity, shared the rejection and ridicule, until they found Smile Train. Then they shared the same moment of corrective surgery and now they share laughter and giggles.