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)

The Family With the Largest Smiles

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Janta, her husband Dayal, and their five daughters Anjali, Poonam, Komal, Ankita, and Namrata.

Janta Kumari Singh and her husband Dayal are the proud parents of five daughters, four of which were born with congenital cleft lip and palate. The family lives in the urban slums of Mumbai, supported by Dayal’s modest wage working as a security guard. By chance, the Singh family heard that another local cleft patient received help at Smile Train partner Godrej Hospital. Once the family talked to staff members at Godrej, the parents were relieved to hear that the surgery would be free and available for all four daughters that needed it.

Older daughters, Anjali and Komal have both received their cleft lip and palate surgery at Godrej Hospital and are currently going through speech therapy there as well. Younger sisters Ankita and Narmata have both had surgeries in September 2014 but the surgeon said, “it has been a challenge to ensure that the girls are fit for surgery they are all anemic and are often prone to infections.”

Now all of the girls go to school and Poonam, the only sibling without a cleft lip and palate, helps them communicate with other children and their teachers. Even though the family has gone through a lot of tough times, they have surrounded themselves with infectious smiles and laughter.

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Janta with her daughters Komal (8 years old) and Ankita (6 years old).

New Smile, New Life in America: Poppy’s Story

Poppy and her father and siblings.

Poppy and her father and siblings.

Several months ago Smile Train supporter, Kristina Lu, adopted her daughter, Poppy, from China. Poppy was born with a cleft palate, but thanks to Smile Train was able to receive free surgery. In her own words Kristina shares her story.

My husband read about Smile Train from the chapter in FreakonomicsTM soon after the book came out.  We liked the way they ran their charity and we became donors for several years. We liked how Smile Train helps teach local doctors how to repair clefts instead of just flying in, doing some surgeries, and then heading home.  It’s the whole “teach a man to fish” philosophy.

In 2013, we decided to add a third child to our family via adoption from China. We decided to adopt from China because my husband is an American of Chinese ethnicity.  We thought that a child adopted from China would blend in well with our biracial family. We also knew we wanted to adopt a special needs child.  Although we were open to different types of special needs, we were most comfortable with adopting a child with cleft lip/palate – some of our comfort coming from knowing about Smile Train and your mission.

We were matched by our adoption agency with our daughter Poppy, who lived in Pingliang, Gansu, China.  After we came home with Poppy in June 2014, Smile Train was extremely helpful in providing us with the medical records that they had on her.

Poppy is doing really well now!  She’s been home 6 months and it’s as if she’s always been a part of our family.  She is best friends with her older sister and she adores her older brother.  She’s loving gymnastics class and she enjoys singing and dancing at home.  She loves playing with her (and her siblings’) Legos. She was very excited to dress up as Princess Anna from Frozen for Halloween this year.  She tells everyone that will listen that she was Anna.

In the age of Facebook and social media, we were able to find Poppy’s connection with Smile Train and Love Without Boundaries.  We were also able to connect with the parents of one of Poppy’s best friends in the orphanage (who also had her cleft surgery through Smile Train in Kunming at the same time) through Facebook.  Her friend was adopted by a family in St. Louis.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, we visited my family in Illinois and we were able to make a side-trip to St. Louis to have dinner with her friend and her family.  At first, they were a little unsure of each other, then they took off like no time had passed since they had been together in Pingliang 6 months earlier.

We found it very touching to see that an organization that we learned about more than a decade ago has directly benefitted our daughter.  Thank you Smile Train for helping Poppy and all the children that you affect.

Poppy and Leslie at the orphanage in China.

Poppy and Leslie at the orphanage in China.

Poppy and Leslie in St. Louis.

Poppy and Leslie in St. Louis.

Overcoming Adversity: International Day of People with Disabilities Story

Mast before

Mast & his parents before surgery

When Maya Milind Sonsale gave birth to her son, Mast Sangharsh Milind Sonsale, she was shocked, and immediately saddened to discover that he not only suffered from a cleft lip and palate, but also congenital blindness. When her husband saw Mast for the first time, he was so furious that he stormed off, leaving Mast and Maya at Maya’s parents’ house. Maya was upset, because she knew her husband was not the only person who would have that reaction to Mast. During the first four years of Mast’s life, the people in their community did not accept him because of his cleft. Maya also felt that because of his blindness it was even more difficult for him to form bonds with others, including her.

Maya discovered Smile Train when reading the newspaper and found an advertisement for the organization. She was so relieved to hear that Mast could receive free treatment, because there was no chance she could afford the surgery by herself. It took eight hours by car to get to the hospital, but Maya knew the long trip was more than worth it. Now, after the surgery, Mast’s father has returned to his child and wife. Maya now says that they are a happy family. Now that Mast’s cleft is repaired, and the family is reunited, they can work together to help Mast cope with his blindness.

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Mast & his parents after surgery

A Long Awaited Smile

Blog post 7.10.2014

Multan, Pakistan—Imagine providing for a family of three living on under seven dollars a day. Unfortunately, this is reality for young Muhammad Zaeem and his family. Muhammad is an only child living with his mother and father in a ‘kachi abadi’ in Pakistan. A ‘kachi abadi’ is an urban settlement in which impoverished people come together to create a makeshift community in order to support each other. Many of the people in these communities cannot read and do not have an adequate supply of resources.

Where Muhammad lives, superstition prevails over science. It is believed that children with a cleft lip are the result of carelessness on the mother’s behalf who, during pregnancy, cut something with a sharp edged knife during an eclipse. While a solution to Muhammad’s cleft was uncertain, his father became hopeful when he saw a Smile Train advertisement on the Bakhtawar Amin Hospital’s billboard.

Muhammad’s parents brought him to see Dr. Amir Hanif at the Bakhtawar Amin Hospital in September 2013. On his first visit Muhammad’s weight and hemoglobin levels were too low to undergo surgery. Dr. Hanif decided to wait four months so Muhammad could become stronger and properly nourished. Muhammad and his parents returned to the hospital in February 2014 and left three days later with Muhammad’s new smile.

The team from the Bakhtawar Amin Hospital visited Muhammad and his family two months later to find great news. Muhammad was living a normal, happy life and was accepted within his community. The family was cheerful and looking forward to the future.

Thankyou Smile Train

An Engaging Smile

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Agra, India—Growing up in a Noorpur, India, a small village in the northern part of the country, 40-year-old Madhuri learned to accept her cleft lip as her parents could never afford the simple surgery that would help her. Like many people living with cleft, Madhuri lived a life deprived of self-confidence and respect. Despite this she was able to marry and have a family of her own. Her husband, working odd jobs as a manual laborer, also could not provide the funding needed to repair his wife’s cleft.

An already difficult life became even more so when her eldest son began seeking a wife. As is the custom in Madhuri’s village, when young men are ready for marriage, eligible bachelorettes visit their homes to meet the entire family. Unfortunately, those who knocked on Madhuri’s door to meet her son, refused to marry him after meeting Madhuri. No one wanted to marry into a family whose matriarch had a cleft. Seeing her son suffer the way he had made Madhuri desperate to find treatment.

Not long after, treatment found her. Two volunteers from a Smile Train partner over 150 miles away, Saraswat Hospital, were in Madhuri’s village as part of an outreach program to find more cleft patients. Madhuri described their arrival as a “God-send.” Soon after meeting the two volunteers she was on her way to Saraswat Hospital where she had her cleft repaired.

Madhuri happily reported back to our partner hospital that potential wives have begun visiting her son again. Giving her even more reasons to smile.

A Smile Years in the Making

Xi’an, China – For some people four years is a short period of time. For a surgeon four years is not time enough to achieve his degree. For Smile Train it is just a third of the time since it began providing cleft surgeries in China. However, for a child with a cleft, four years can change his fate. Four years helped Hua Tai’an and his family get through sadness and helplessness to happiness and hope.

Hua Tai’an was born in July 2006 with both a cleft lip and a cleft palate in Xianyang City, China. Not long after his birth, Hua’s father began to seek treatment for his son. The family used all their savings to pay for Hua’s cleft lip surgery, which still left Hua’s nose slightly misshapen. They had no money left to afford surgery to repair his palate. Luckily, not long after, Hua’s father learned of free cleft surgeries being provided at Smile Train’s earliest partner hospital in his province—Stomatological Hospital of Xi’an Jiaotong University.

The hospital’s staff was struck by the appearance of father and son when they arrived at the hospital. The child was beautiful, while the father was old, with long and shaggy hair. He seemed to be very poor. Despite making the journey with his son to the hospital, Hua’s father was still skeptical that surgery could be free in such a large hospital in a big city like Xi’an, especially because the first surgery had cost his life savings. The doctors told the father that, “Smile Train pays for you so that you can enjoy the free surgery.” The father was still rather in doubt about this, but allowed the surgery to be done.

On July 8, 2008, Hua Tai’an, who was now two years old, received a successful surgery to repair his cleft palate.

Hua Tai'an at two years old.

Hua Tai’an at two years old.

As time passed after the surgery the father found that his child was still unable to play with other children because Hua was unable to speak clearly. He was very concerned for his son. In 2010 the hospital invited the boy and his father to a speech language camp for cleft palate patients.

At the camp Hua and his father took part in the activities with the other patients and their families. Despite being with other cleft patients like him, Hua was too shy to look up or speak. His father said the poor appearance of his son’s nose was to blame. The team at the hospital recommended a second surgery to revise the cleft lip repair and help with Hua’s speech. Hua’s father was even more worried than during his first visit to the hospital. His concern was again about the surgery’s cost. The doctor’s explained to him that he need not worry because Smile Train would once more fund the treatment as well as transportation fee to and from the hospital for both him and Hua.

After many months spent debating another surgery, Hua’s father permitted surgical treatment for his son. On February 10, 2012, Hua was operated by the same surgeon who originally treated his cleft palate. The surgery was a great success and Hua was discharged from the hospital on schedule.

During one of Hua’s follow-up visits in November 2012, doctors thought that another child had entered their office due to his beautiful smile. Hua had made wonderful progress. He spoke confidently to all the staff and proudly shared his academic achievements.

Hua Tai’an, in primary school at grade one. He now has made great academic achievements and good friends.

Hua Tai’an, in primary school at grade one. He now has made great academic achievements and good friends.

Even the father’s smile had noticeably grown. He said his son had been much more cheerful, as if Hua was a different person. The difficulties of the past four years had disappeared. The father proudly displayed all the materials associated with his son’s years of treatment. Doctors were inspired when they noticed “pass cards” of the speech treatment camp that the father had cherished, but was so common to them. Hua’s father finally found that his son could be as outstanding as other children, if not more.

The team at Stomatological Hospital of Xi’an Jiaotong University was grateful and happy as well. Throughout the past four years the father had worn the same clothes every time he visited the hospital and under such difficult economic conditions the hospital staff was unsure how long the family’s persistence in treating their son could last.

It took the hospital staff a bit of time to consider what was the key to Hua’s and their success. They wrote to Smile Train this conclusion:

“Without the support of such a strong foundation, Smile Train, we couldn’t have persisted on for four years with a single patient. The poor families couldn’t have afforded the expensive surgeries many times. Without Smile Train, the team approach to cleft care wouldn’t have such development or scale as today. Without the thirteen years of Smile Train in China, how could we have seen the smiles of children with cleft lip and cleft palate?”