A decade-long journey full of smiles

Smile Train

Leela Imam Smile Train

My journey of working with Smile Train began on the day I watched the Oscar-winning documentary “Smile Pinki” on TV. I had never heard about clefts before, but I was so moved by the story of this little girl born with a cleft lip, that I sought more information about Smile Train. Coincidentally, only a few days later, I found Pinki’s story in the papers, and next to it a small advertisement inviting applications to work at Smile Train. I realized right then that this was a life-defining moment, and that I was destined to spread smiles across India. Now, as a Senior Program Director, I have been a part of this smile-making journey for a decade!

Back in 2011, when I had just started working with Smile Train, I had never even seen a cleft patient in my life. Now every time I visit a Smile Train centre, I see the OPD overflowing with children with cleft lip and palate. Children with clefts lead a very isolated life, hidden from society due to stigma and ignorance. When I met them and saw what a difference cleft repair can make, I was overwhelmed. You may think that this birth anomaly is very rare, but it is not that uncommon. 35,000+ babies are born with cleft lip and / or palate in India every year, and yet, there is such a lack of information amongst the general public. I have come across heart-wrenching tales of babies with cleft being abandoned and their mothers being deemed cursed. Stories like these will always stay with me, but this only increased my resolve to be part of a system that would change the world, one smile at a time.

Before Smile Train started operations in India, several health missions conducted cleft camps to repair this birth difference, but they could not successfully rehabilitate children with clefts. Facial reconstruction requires great skill and dexterity, and this is where Smile Train excels — our network of partners include top medical professionals in the world, and they conduct cleftcare in a safe environment, providing comprehensive solutions. Right from arranging transportation for poor and needy patients to providing counselling, treatment in orthodontics, speech therapy and orthognathic surgery - Smile Train does it all. We also work with goodwill ambassadors and government stakeholders to bridge the gap in cleftcare, so that each patient gets the opportunity to lead a full and healthy life.

As the world looks forward to celebrating International Women’s Day, I feel proud to have worked with so many women who uplift Smile Train’s values of providing equal access to comprehensive cleft care. I believe women have empathy and a nurturing instinct, which makes the women-dominated Smile Train team connect with kids and their families with great ease and dedication. Our work greatly impacts the lives of mothers of children with clefts, as they are the ones who are most distressed and ostracized if their child is born with a cleft. We believe that everyone has an equal right to live with dignity and self-respect, and above all else, to smile!

As narrated by Leela Imam, Senior Director - Programs, Smile Train India. She has worked with Smile Train since 2011 and has helped spread countless smiles.

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