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“I Started Public School In Third Grade. And So Began The Worst Years Of My Life.” Artist With Birth Difference Finds Way To Turn “Worst Days Into Something Good.”

artist surrounded by art supplies and a few paintings at table with her mom

Meet Julia Robert Capili, an artist, student, and baker from Manila, the Philippines. As a Smile Train patient, she knows firsthand how far love and compassion can go when it comes to turning someone’s life around. But don’t take our word for it! Her story will bring you to tears and fill your heart with joy, and you don’t want to miss it.

I was always chubby and healthy. I know that may seem strange for someone born with a cleft, but I think it shows how, while I’ve never had it easy, I’ve always been blessed.

Julia as a baby
Smile Train

In part, I owed my grab-able baby thighs to the sacrifices my parents made to make sure I had a surgery to heal my cleft palate when I was only a few months old. But mostly, I owed it to my mother. She had a hard time feeding me at first, even after my surgery, until she found a way to smash and boil fruits and vegetables into a liquid then syringe feed them to me. It took a lot of effort, but it worked.

While I may have avoided the nutritional issues that plague so many others with clefts, my allergies and asthma more than made up for it. Having respiratory issues in addition to a cleft dramatically heightens my risk of major illness or infection; for me, there’s no such thing as a minor cold. I was sick a lot as a child and it was hard on my family, but they always reassured me that, with support and love, there was no challenge I couldn’t surpass.

Julia as a child
Smile Train

My wish for every person with a cleft is that they, too, have the good fortune of having a parent who is a Montessori teacher! Every day from grade school through college, my mother led me in hands-on creative play. We sounded out letters together, read books, practiced speeches in front of a mirror – she was my speech therapist! I went to her school from preschool through second grade, then started public school in third grade. And so began the three worst years of my life.

The kids in public school did so much more than tease me for my cleft lip. They made me feel insecure, isolated, alone, and empty. Imagine being 10 years old and constantly told by your peers that no one should love you. I would come home crying, begging my parents to let me skip school the next day. On those days, they poured out their love to me so strongly I could never doubt I was worthy of it. They also taught me that kids are mean because they don’t understand who I am or what I’m going through. My mom sometimes even went to the school to speak to the kids so they would understand me better; it rarely worked, but she never stopped trying.

Julia drawing
Smile Train

The best thing we did to cope was make art together. Our bond as a family has always been through painting, drawing, making bracelets, anything artsy. I gravitated towards painting and it was my lifeline during this time and ever since. Whatever experiences I was having, good or bad, sad or happy, I learned to express through color and canvas. Especially on my worst days, my art inspires me to pull back into reality and start anew. It’s my therapy.

While the trauma of that time in my life still haunts me, I believe I came out stronger for the experience. Everything changed in high school, when my mom discovered the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation of the Philippines (NCF), our nearest Smile Train partner. NCF was the first place I ever felt “seen” and valued outside my home because they and Smile Train understand that truly healing a person’s cleft requires healing the whole person, not just their face. If NCF had only given me the two additional cleft surgeries I really needed at no cost to my family, that would have been more than enough and we would have been endlessly grateful. But they went so far beyond that to also provide the personalized dental care, speech therapy, and psychosocial services that gave me the confidence and courage to face life.

Julia at the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation of the Philippines
Smile Train

Their example inspired me to dedicate my life to repaying the blessings that my family, NCF, and Smile Train have given me. With my new confidence and new smile, I enrolled in college, majoring in psychology on the pre-med track so I could become a doctor just like my heroes.

julia holding diploma surrounded by her parents
Smile Train

When I wasn’t in school, I could be found volunteering at NCF. I started by calling patients to remind them of their appointments. This role held a lot of meaning for me because it gave me a chance to speak to new moms of children with clefts and reassure them that everything will be okay because their baby will be in the best hands. As time went on, I took on other roles, too, like planning and volunteering at events.

Julia studying
Smile Train

I loved volunteering at NCF so much that I started doing it full-time while I searched for a way to afford medical school after college. During this period, I was privileged to exhibit my paintings at a fundraiser for Smile Train. When I sold some, it was the best feeling in the world because it meant that I could use my passion to help fund cleft care for others in need. The day after the exhibition, October 5, 2017, I went to NCF happy and still stoked to have experienced being part of an art show for the first time. Then I had a stroke right there in the office.

Everything in my life stopped.

In those early days after my stroke, I sometimes felt like I was back at square one. I had to stay home. My mother spoon-fed me the same liquid diet as when I was a child because I could barely move my muscles. My body again stood between me and the life I wanted.

Julia at Philippine General Hospital after her stroke
Smile Train

But even on my worst days, I knew everything really was different now, and NCF was a big reason why. They helped me find a room in the ICU at Philippine General Hospital when my family was in crisis mode. They also helped us financially and referred us to the best doctors for my recovery.

Julia and her mother cooking
Smile Train

I am still in the process of recovering. My mind doesn’t work the way it did before, and my right side still feels a little bit numb. Med school is not an option for now, though I still plan to enroll someday. I am not giving up. In the meantime, I am working remotely as an administrative assistant for a psychological clinic in Los Angeles, California. I also started an online business with my boyfriend and family where we sell clothes and homemade foods like banana cake, no-bake cheesecake, and lasagna.

Julia making art after her stroke
Smile Train

My all-time favorite quote is from The Emperor in the animated version of Mulan: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” For me and so many other rare and beautiful flowers, Smile Train has given us what we needed to grow, have confidence in ourselves, and bloom into new life during our times of greatest adversity. I am forever grateful to its donors for making our metamorphoses possible.

Original art by Julia commissioned for Smile Train
Smile Train

With help from God, my family and friends, and NCF and Smile Train, I’m rebuilding my confidence, regaining hope, and fighting to reclaim my dream one little step at a time. Like always, my goal is to use this experience to help others. Let’s all channel our worst days into something good and productive.”

Keep up the amazing work, Julia! What a powerful reminder that even when all seems lost, there is always hope. Share this story to brighten someone’s day and to spread the word about Smile Train’s life-changing support.

Julia holding original artwork she made for Smile Train for World Smile Day
Smile Train

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