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.

Smile Train Cleft Choir Pilot Speech Program Underway

New York, NYSmile Train Vice President of Programs in charge of Latin America, Pamela Wren, gives an update on a unique and promising pilot speech therapy program, Cleft Choirs.

Help Us Win a Grant to Expand Our Cleft Choir Program! Vote for Smile Train Cleft Choirs

The Need For Expanded Speech Therapy

Access to cleft palate surgery is life-changing for any child in need, but for some children, this is only the first step in receiving cleft care. Following cleft surgery, many are still at risk of suffering from serious speech problems. Within a few months of palate surgery, children should demonstrate speech development progress, but some children require additional support, such as speech therapy. There are a number of reasons that a child might have speech issues, including:

  • Speech patterns that developed prior to cleft surgery (aka, the child learned how to speak with an open palate – in developed countries, children receive surgery before they learn how to speak, so as to avoid speech problems)
  • Incomplete closure in the palate that allows air to escape into the nose
  • Dental and teeth issues that limit the ability to produce certain sounds
  • Ear problems that affect hearing and, therefore, speech development

Traditional speech therapy, which entails one-on-one sessions between a child and a specialized therapist, requires a long-term commitment among children, their parents, and trained speech professionals. Such resources are often not available at hospitals in developing countries — many patients never return to the hospital following their initial surgery, let alone return for ongoing speech therapy sessions. In a recent survey, Smile Train hospitals identified a lack of financial support, equipment, trained professionals, training, and patient compliance as the most critical barriers to providing speech therapy.

Help Us Win a Grant to Expand Our Cleft Choir Program! Vote for Smile Train Cleft Choirs

Addressing Speech Therapy Needs

One very innovative partner in South America recently approached Smile Train with a unique, cost-effective technique to offer speech therapy to children in need — the development of Speech Therapy Choirs! This idea is based on the fact that choir practice will bring together children in a social way to practice new sounds and tap their inner musical selves. This experience helps children to gain confidence, develop new friendships, and also tap into a communication skill that they never before were able or willing to explore! In addition to correcting their speech, this experience encourages children with cleft lips and palates to overcome any social barriers they have experienced due to problems with proper speech, and help them develop into happy and productive people!

Smile Train loved this idea from the start, and took the opportunity of the Holiday Season to offer small pilot grants to six of Smile Train’s most enthusiastic partners across the region. The grants have enabled our partners to work with musicians and therapists to oversee the practices and development of the children, reimburse parents children for their transportation costs to and from practice, and cover nominal music supplies and equipment. After only a few months of these grants being active, not only have we seen that the choirs improve speech patterns for our Smile Train kids, they have also helped the kids make new friends, sing proudly in front of their peers and communities for the very first time, and heal their inner scars to feel whole, happy and complete!

Choirs Happening Now


Smile Train patients sing with Santa Claus

UNSELVA at Hospital Universitario Julio Muller — located in the interior of Brazil and offers care to about 100 Smile Train children a year. The team is led by head surgeon/cleft director Dr. Adalberto Novaes and speech therapist Adriana Lima Valente. They started practicing in October 2012 and just had a concert on December 7, 2012 to community members. The video shows them rocking out at the hospital entrance, with Santa Claus walking around bringing holiday cheer. You can see parents supporting their children as they learn to be proud and stand up in front of friends and community members as they sing in happiness about their new smiles.

Associação Beija-Flor-Funface at Hospital Infantil Albert Sabin — based in the north of Brazil, the poorest and most needy region of the entire country, this partner serves more 250 children with cleft lips and palates each year. They currently have a very long waiting list of patients in need of primary care. Smile Train is helping them with education grants so they can empower and train more professionals to join their team, and in turn be able to help more children. The lead surgeon is Dr José Ferreira and the speech program is run by Ms. Evelin Gondim. Their choir concert took place on December 11 🙂

Vote for Smile Train Cleft Choirs to Win a Grant From Uniqlo!

REPENSAR at Hospital Municipal Nossa Senhora Do Loreto — located on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero in a very poor neighborhood, the cleft program offers comprehensive treatment to all patients for free,
including speech therapy and orthodontics. This group loved the choir idea because it motivated the Smile Train children to return to the center to maintain their care and truly develop better speech and social habits. The director of the program is Dra Fatima Regina Almeida Brandao; the cleft program coordinator is Dra Ana Claudia Cruz; the cleft surgeons are Dr Giancarlo Cervo Rechia and Dr Luis Sergio Zanini, and the speech therapist coordinating the choir is Ms. Marinele Danieli Simões Dutra. The choir started practicing in October and put on a fantastic performance on December 17th when all of the kids in the cleft program dressed up as Christmas ornaments and trees as they happily sang in front of a large crowd!


Smile Train patients perform for friends and family as part of our Cleft Choir Speech Therapy program

Hospital del Día Niños de la Mano de Maria — This small partner hospital is 100% dedicated to serving poor patients with cleft lip and palate, and serves about 50 very poor families affected by cleft lip and palate each year. The families travel from across the country to the capital city to see them at their partner hospital. Smile Train is working with them to bring more awareness to people across the country about their program so they can then offer more services to more families in need. The surgical program is led by Dr Pablo Davalos and the coordinator of the team and the choir is Ms. Paty Penaherrera. The choir began practicing in October and even had an activity of practice at the local zoo! On December 17th, they hosted a choir concert where they all dressed up with Santa hats and performed for family members and friends at the hospital. The team and families are so happy about this that they are asking for additional support so they can continue to choir into the new year.


Help Us Win a Grant for Our Cleft Choir Program! Vote Here

Hospital General Dr. Gea Gonzalez — This is one of Smile Train’s original partners globally, and over the 11 years of our partnership they have developed many innovative speech therapy projects to serve their poor population of Smile Train patients. They provide life changing surgery to about 300 poor patients each year under the brilliant surgical guidance of Dr. Fernando Molina and shining speech therapist Ms. Maria Carmen Pamplona. The speech program is very large at the hospital and even though they do provide traditional one-on-one therapies for their patients, the lead therapist, Ms. Maria Carmen, strongly believes that their new choir is helping the children make tremendous strides in their speech development and self esteem. She is so happy with the new program and really looks forward to continuing it for all patients for years to come!


Smile Train patients at choir practice as part of a unique Speech Therapy program

kusiROSTROS — This is an NGO that works with a number of Smile Train’s partner hospitals based in the capital city of Peru, Lima. Smile Train provides more than 700 surgeries across the country in one year. Smile Train’s largest and oldest partner in Lima is called CIRPLAST and is run by partner surgeon Dr. Carlos Navarro. KusiROSTROS applied for the pilot speech therapy choir grant because they have speech professionals who were very excited about the opportunity. As soon as they heard about the project, they started calling all of the Smile Train patients from Lima who are between 4 – 13 years old to see if they would be interested in joining the choir to develop their speech skills and also meet other children who perhaps are going through similar experiences of dealing with their scars and poor speech. About 40 children started participating in weekly choir practices. You can see the photographs of the kusiROSTROS team building decorating a special space for the children to meet, so they would feel welcome and at home at the site to practice and develop their new skills.

Please Help Us Win a Grant from Uniqlo to Expand Our Cleft Choir Program! Vote for Smile Train Cleft Choirs

Changing Families’ Lives In Colombia

Smile Train patient Lina and her sister after Lina's free cleft surgery

Cali, ColombiaSmile Train staff member Maryan Newbury recently visited our partner Gracia a Dios Un Niño Sonrie Foundation. While examining best practices for cleft surgery and administration to help with implementation at Smile Train’s other partners, she had the opportunity to visit patients and their families with surgeon Dr. Mauricio Moreno. Upon her return from Colombia, she shared her experience.

Accompanied by the community police, we made our way through one barrio after another, up the side of the mountain. When the police van could no longer climb the steep hill, we went by foot. Shopkeepers, children returning from their morning school session and passersby all tried to point us in the right direction, toward the home of 15-year-old Smile Train patient Lina Rivera and her family. Luckily, we met her younger brother along the way.

The Rivera family lives below a makeshift billiard hall, in a three-room cellar apartment. Electrical wiring hangs in clumps from the ceiling and one wall has mostly crumbled away, exposing the home to the elements. Nevertheless, the children’s mother beamed as she offered us a lunch of arepas and juice, expressing her deep gratitude to Dr. Moreno for the surgery that transformed her daughter’s smile.

I had brought Smile Train teddy bears to give to patients I met during my journey. All of the kids I met had grabbed them and smiled, even if they were still a bit sleepy when waking up from cleft surgery. This time, however, when I took a bear out of my bag and handed it to Lina, she simply turned and walked into the other room. Following her, I watched as Lina handed the bear to her little sister. The smallest member of the family hugged the bear tight, covered it with kisses, and gently put it on the bed. As Lina watched her sister whispering to the bear and tucking it in for a nap, I could see from the quiet satisfaction on her face that anything she receives she will surely share with her little sister.

We know that cleft surgery saves children’s lives, but it also improves the quality of life for their families and communities. When a child’s smile is transformed, she will have more to share with her family and her community throughout her life. By providing free cleft surgery, we didn’t just help Lina, we helped her whole family.

— Maryan Newbury