4 Smile Train Heroes Who Are Changing Lives Around The World

a little boy smiling as he lays next to a cuddles for clefts stuffed animal and a surgeon named dr. amanda malungo wearing a face mask as she talks to a little boy she's holding in her arms

It’s always important to focus on our health, but there’s an especially good time to do so: World Health Day! In other words, today! But conversations around health shouldn’t always be self-focused. Our discussions need to include those around us, both near and far — especially when it comes to those who struggle to get the kind of care many of us take for granted.

Thankfully, organizations like Smile Train are playing a vital role in ensuring that money isn’t an issue when it comes to getting proper care. That’s why, today, we’d like to celebrate some of our Smile Train heroes who are making the world a happier and healthier place!

1. From patient to Smile Train social worker.

Like many children who grow up with a cleft, Rahmad endured years of bullying. It wore on his confidence, but he remained determined to not let those who ridiculed him keep him down. This is the same mindset he maintained through other hardships he faced, like losing family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Through it all, Rahmad kept his fighting spirit.

Then, when he turned 18, his life changed when he was introduced to Smile Train. Through this nonprofit, he received life-changing surgery to heal his cleft… at absolutely no cost. Once his procedures were complete, he took speaking lessons and found his voice in more ways than one.

Inspired to help others like him, Rahmad became a Smile Train social worker. He drives a minibus covered in before-and-after photos of patients and makes his way across Indonesia’s Aceh Province in an effort to recruit as many new patients as possible. Since 2010, he’s helped almost 2,000 people get life-saving cleft treatment!

“It’s not easy to convince the parents, and sometimes I visit the family five times before they agree,” Rahmad said. “This is because they are afraid. They want to see patients who already had the surgery, so sometimes I show them pictures … Some don’t believe me that I had a cleft and want to see more, but others agree immediately. My question to them is, ‘Don’t you want your kid to have a better life like me? To follow in my footsteps?'”

a man named rahmad smiling as he poses next to a van with before and after photos of children who received cleft surgery through the help of smile train
Smile Train

2. Changing lives with nutritious food.

Adriana Zavalaga loves to use science to help others. A decade ago, she did this as a nutrition counselor in Peru. But when a friend told her that Smile Train partner Mision Caritas Felices (MCF) needed volunteers, she didn’t hesitate to sign up. Using her expertise, she evaluated patients to see if they were ready for cleft surgery the next day.

She quickly discovered that many patients were temporarily disqualified due to malnutrition and anemia. To combat this problem, Adriana applied for and received a nutrition grant from Smile Train. Now, she hosts free workshops for cleft-affected families, including virtually for those in the poorest, most remote parts of Peru. Now, more children than ever are able to get the life-saving surgeries they need ASAP!

“I get the greatest satisfaction when I see patients grow up to be healthy individuals,” she said. “It not only makes me very happy, but also makes me want to become better at helping them. I will still be doing this work for a long time.”

a woman named adriana zavalaga teaching women using photos of food on a table how to give their children with clefts the nutritious food they need
Smile Train

3. The first female plastic surgeon in Zambia.

When Dr. Amanda Mulango worked in a rural medical practice, she discovered that many lack easy access to important surgeries, including cleft surgery. That’s why, when she heard that Smile Train was accepting applications for a fellowship, she immediately applied.

Now, she’s literally saving lives as a Fellow of the College of Surgeons of East, Central, and Southern Africa! One way she’s doing this is by participating in cleft outreach programs that destigmatize clefts and increase the number of qualified surgeons and other integral cleft care professionals across the region.

“As more people are trained in cleft surgery across the country, my hope is to establish a cleft center where comprehensive care and follow-up services can be coordinated,” Dr. Mulango said. “To get there, we will need to invest in infrastructure and research to improve the quality of care.”

a surgeon named dr. amanda mulango wearing a face mask as she sits and holds a baby with a cleft
Smile Train

4. Personalized care packages with Cuddles for Clefts.

When an ultrasound revealed that Krista Pietersma’s child would be born with a cleft, she and her husband felt lost. They didn’t know anyone else who had gone through this, so Krista reached out in mom groups on social media. Soon, she was connected to a woman whose daughter had a cleft. Almost instantly, they went from strangers to each other’s support system.

Wanting to pay that kindness forward, Krista volunteered for an organization that sent care packages to children having cleft surgeries. Each one included toys, comfort items, and a stuffed animal with a hand-stitched scar to match the one the child would have after surgery. Her son got one of his own and, at seven years old, its still his most beloved companion.

That’s why Krista felt called to step up when the organization decided to dissolve. In doing so, her new organization, Cuddles for Clefts, only became more popular! But running this nonprofit alone wasn’t possible long term — that’s why she couldn’t be more grateful for the two women who joined her team or for the organizations that have partnered with her, including Smile Train! Now, even more families will know they’re not alone on their cleft journey.  

“With a Smile Train Cuddle Pack, everybody wins — children with clefts in need around the world get to know another family is thinking of them as they go in for their free surgery, and donors’ families get to make a connection with someone they would likely never meet otherwise,” she said. “It truly takes a village, and I’m thrilled that our partnership is helping to create a global cleft village every day.”

a care package from cuddles for clefts in partnership with smile train called smile train cuddle pack that features a stuffed animal, a book called "shining scars," a onesie that says "every smile has a story," and a blue bracelet
Smile Train

As we celebrate World Health Day, it’s important that we shine a light on nonprofits like Smile Train. Not only do they provide vital treatment for those with clefts before, during, and after surgery, but they also do so at absolutely no cost to the families in need.

Don’t forget to share this list to spread word of Smile Train’s important work.

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