After applying to work at a call center in the Philippines, Angieleca Hayahay was told that she wouldn’t get the job because of a strict policy against hiring people like her.
Angieleca was born with a cleft lip and palate—a condition afflicting more than 170,000 newborn children around the world each year. Clefts can leave a permanent gap in a person’s lip and roof of the mouth. They make it difficult for babies to eat and breathe properly and, as children grow, they can lead to a struggle with day-to-day tasks as simple as hearing, speaking, and drinking a glass of water.
Delays in corrective surgery can make these problems worse, creating obstacles that preclude many with clefts—like Angieleca—from holding jobs in adulthood. Troublingly, clefts are also often the source of bullying and discrimination, preventing those afflicted from leading full and productive lives.
In the U.S., most children with clefts undergo corrective surgery before they’re three months old. But in developing countries, there’s a scarcity of trained doctors—and even the relatively low cost of surgery can be prohibitive. The social price many children pay can be even higher.
In Uganda, for instance, many children born with clefts are called “Ajok” by their families and neighbors, which translates to “a curse from God.” In some instances, they are neglected and ceaselessly mistreated even by immediate family.
After undergoing corrective surgery as a child, Angieleca underwent years of subsequent care with the Philippine Band of Mercy, a foundation that helps low-income families receive care for their children with clefts. Since 2002, the foundation’s been a partner of Smile Train, an international organization focused on providing free cleft repair surgery in developing countries through funding and training for local doctors. Since then, with Smile Train’s support, the Philippine Band of Mercy has gone on to perform more than 10,500 cleft surgeries.
Around the world, Smile Train and its partners have performed surgeries that have empowered the lives of more than one million children.
Take Monserrat Reyna Barcenas, who grew up in Mexico with a family who could not afford surgery to correct her cleft lip and palate.
Monserrat, who was teased since elementary school, even found great difficulty taking showers because water would come out of her nose due to her condition.
But when her family found a doctor who would perform the surgery at no cost with the help of Smile Train, Monserrat underwent subsequent speech therapy and counseling—and discovered the new power of a smile.
“I feel happier and more self confident, and even brag about it,” Monserrat said. “Now when I have to speak in front of the class, people quiet down and listen. I want to show everyone that this kind of condition doesn’t stop you.”