Santi: “Dream Big; Don’t Stop”

For adults with clefts, a smile also means fulfilling work with dignity.

Santi standing proud at work

Not a day of school went by when Santi didn’t cry. He was born with a cleft, which also gave him a persistent cough and often made speaking a humiliating chore. His classmates bullied him without mercy. Looking back on it now, Santi remembers the tears, but in the same breath smiles and says, “But the best part was that I still made the honor roll every year.”

Santi owes his fighting spirit to his mother, who knew he would need to be strong to thrive. She taught him that while his peers may hide their own insecurities with cruelty, he should never forget that true strength shows in kindness. “My mom was always by my side through hard times and good times,” he said. “She motivates me all the time and always taught me that even with a cleft I can do anything others can do as long as I work hard and am a good person.”

With that motivation, he managed to rise above his many challenges and get accepted into college to study computer engineering. And when he was forced to drop out of that program for lack of finances, he picked himself up and took courses in technical drafting in the morning and paid for it by working as a laborer with a construction company at night. “Someone once told me, ‘Dream big; don’t stop,’ so when this opportunity came along, I was very inspired to finish it.” Santi’s uncanny focus and work ethic did not go unnoticed by his bosses there, and they soon promoted him to an office job as a site assistant.

Santi in hospital receiving free Smile Train cleft surgery

While he was able to complete his course, he was soon let go at work. He applied for every opportunity he came across but was turned away from them all, even positions he was highly qualified for. Sometimes, he would get an interview only to be dismissed the moment they saw his cleft scar. He kept on submitting, kept on searching, kept on dreaming. And when his big break came, it was in the most unlikely of places — the dentist’s chair.

Though Santi’s family had managed to secure two operations on his cleft lip when he was little, it was clear to both his doctors and his family that he still needed surgery to heal his cleft palate along with specialized dental work and speech therapy — all treatments his family could not afford. Never one to settle for an excuse, Santi determined to push through the best he could with what he had. It was hard going, but he thought that was how his life had to be. Until one day he visited his dentist at the Philippine General Hospital and someone on staff told him an organization called Smile Train would sponsor the cost of the rest of the cleft care he needed. Santi received surgery and care from Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation of the Philippines, one of Smile Train's oldest partners in the country. “This was a blessing for my mom, especially, because it meant there was hope for the continuation of my operations. If no one recommended Smile Train to us, my mother wouldn't have known what she would do just to finish the rest of my treatment,” he said.

It was Santi’s new, Smile Train-partnered dentist who told him about an upcoming career workshop Smile Train Philippines was hosting right in Manila where people with clefts could do mock interviews, learn how to write CV’s, and receive tips on securing a job. This was the opportunity he was waiting for; when the day came, he got out his best suit and shined his shoes with renewed hope.

Santi takes a selfie on a subway station in Manila

One of the workshop presenters was Luke Scanlan of CADDS Group, a multi-disciplinary design and consultancy firm based in Perth, Australia and with an office in Manila. As Luke puts it, CADDS celebrates drive, passion, and willingness to learn first and foremost. Naturally, when he spoke to Santi at the workshop, the connection was immediate, and Santi left that day as the company’s newest draftsman.

“Educational opportunities are often just out of reach for so many and career options limited even for many graduates,” Luke said. “We believe that the sooner industry representatives can connect with those looking at their future education and career choices, the more pathways, inspiration, and support can be provided.”

Santi at work with his peers

At CADDS, Santi at last found himself surrounded by people he wasn’t related to who appreciated him for who he is on the inside. “I am very blessed that this company accepted me. The employees are all kind and happy people who never make me feel like I am different from them.”

But Luke insists the blessing is all CADDS’s. “Santi brings such a positive energy. He is always eager to learn new skills and jumps into company activities. He has also increased his drafting knowledge to the point where he has started taking on checking and quality assurance tasks. Beyond that, he is always quick with a joke or a laugh and just makes the office a fun place to be. I have no doubt he has a bright future ahead of him.”

Santi on his computer at work

Free to be himself, Santi’s talent has soared, and he was recently promoted to junior designer.

“Having a job provides so much self-esteem and can help break cycles of poverty,” explained Luke. “As a company, knowing that we are opening the door to the construction industry’s next generation of leaders has such a positive effect on all of us. That next brilliant professional may not even be aware of their own potential and may just need someone to give them a chance. It’s our honor to give them that chance.”

Kimmy Coseteng-Flaviano, Smile Train’s Area Director for Southeast Asia couldn’t agree more. “Santi is a truly special guy. Between health problems and constant harassment, so many children with clefts don’t finish school at all, let alone get the secondary education necessary to pursue the career of their choice. Santi is proof of what this community is capable of if only they have access to the healthcare they need to thrive, if only we believe in them even half as much as they believe in themselves. At Smile Train, that’s what our work is all about — giving people with clefts everything they need to smile and shine, whether they’re one minute old, 18 years old, or 80 years old. To all of us who have worked with this community, it is not surprising at all that people who have received cleft treatment have gone on to contribute more than $20 billion to the global economy.”

Santi standing proud at work

Looking back on his journey, Santi has some advice for other kids with clefts who may be having a hard time seeing a light at the end of the tunnel: “Don’t be afraid. Try to face your fears because they are only in your mind. Just keep dreaming because one day you will be the inspiration for others to keep going.

“Many thanks to Smile Train and its donors,” he added. “Thanks to you, people like me can live their dreams of having the opportunity to showcase their knowledge and skills.”

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Our impact in the Philippines

As of May 2021


cleft treatments sponsored since 2001


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active partner hospitals