Shining, Sparkling, Smiling Kristhell

How one kind stranger changed a little girl’s life

Kristhell and her mother, Cinthya, hold a picture of Kristhell before Smile Train cleft surgery

Cinthya lives with her husband and three children in a wooden shack in the mountains above Lima, Peru. Her youngest child, five-year-old Maria Kristhell, was born with a cleft. We recently caught up with her to learn more about her family’s cleft journey and how they found Smile Train.

I am always careful to go for all my ultrasounds when I am pregnant. This time, the images reassured me that the baby was fine even as I suffered from complications. I got sick a lot; I had headaches. They told me there was a chance I could lose her. At eight-and-a-half months, my obstetrician sent me for an additional ultrasound at a maternity unit in Lima.

That’s when the nurse discovered the baby’s cleft. The news was like a bucket of cold water pouring over me. How were they only finding this now after so many other ultrasounds revealed nothing? I went home and cried. I felt confused and sad and didn’t have the heart to tell my husband. I just didn’t want to worry him.

Two days later, my contractions started. I tried to ignore them because I still couldn’t accept that my baby would have a cleft. Then the pain became too much. My husband drives a gas truck and is away from seven every morning until eight every night, but since it was already late in the day, he was there to take me to the hospital. I felt guilty because I still hadn’t told him about the cleft.

When Maria Kristhell was born, one of the doctors was unkind and told me not to pretend to be surprised because I already knew she would have a cleft. A nurse saw how unhappy I was and reassured me. She then put me in a private room, taught me how to feed her, and gave me some formula to take home. That gave me a lot of strength.

Things got hard again once we came home. My husband was so shocked and scared by how Maria was born that he couldn’t eat or go near her for days. Thankfully, his family didn’t share any of our worries. They fell in love with her exactly as she was and supported us however they could. And we really needed the help.

A Precarious Existence

View of Cinthya and Kristhell looking down the hill from their house
Cinthya and Kristhell look down from their home

Feeding her was a hardship from the moment we left the hospital. The formula she needed was very expensive, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to spoon-feed her without the nurses’ help. They told me I should move to carefully feeding her with a syringe if I couldn’t make the spoon work, but I thought I could hurt her that way, so I started feeding her with a bottle sitting up.

Imagine being alone all day with a newborn who chokes every time you try to feed her and who you can’t take out of the house because everyone stares at you. Imagine how lonely I felt, how different and inadequate!

No matter what I did, the milk dripped out her nose and choked her. When Kristhell was 15 days old, she got sick and I had to take her to the hospital. As I cried in the waiting room, a woman came up to ask what was wrong. I told her my daughter was born with a cleft and constantly choking. She told me she knew someone, Kathy Sandoval, who worked for a cleft organization and gave me her number. But I was so upset at the time that I forgot the name and number, so had to look her up online when I felt better a few days later.

That’s how I found Mision Caritas Felices (MCF), the cleft center in Lima where Kathy Sandoval works. I immediately made an appointment.

When our appointment arrived, Dr. Olga Rita Figallo examined Kristhell and told me she could heal all her problems — and because MCF partners with an organization called Smile Train, all of the cleft care she would ever need would be 100% free. That was a blessing.

The Journey of a Lifetime Begins

Cinthya and Kristell in 2019
Cinthya and Kristhell in 2019

Kristhell’s treatment started right away. First, Dr. Olga fitted her with customized orthodontics to better prepare her for surgery and gave us a specialized “ducktail” bottle to make it easier to feed her. Kristhell had been so skinny; I can’t tell you the joy I felt seeing her gain weight!

When Kristhell was three months old, they told us she was ready to receive cleft surgery at a nearby center.

I was so, so nervous the day of the surgery. No relatives were available to come with me, and when they took my baby to the operating room, I was in pieces. Fortunately, I happened to meet some of my son’s friends’ mothers there, and they stayed with me during the operation so I wouldn’t be all alone. It felt like a lifetime, but less than an hour later, I was so relieved and happy when I saw Kristhell’s face after the surgery!

Her Future is Bright and In Sight

The next month was very peaceful; Kristhell did very well. I followed the treatment regimen Smile Train and MCF prescribed, and the family couldn’t get over our good fortune to see our baby healthy and smiling.

Kristhell at home in 2019
Kristhell is queen of the Andes. Photo taken in 2019.

She was scheduled for her second cleft surgery when she was one-and-a-half, but, unfortunately, got sick just before so it had to be delayed. Here again, Smile Train helped us by providing food, lodging, and transportation so we could stay until she was healthy enough for the surgery.

Once she had her palate surgery, she started speech therapy with Dr. Evelyn Cana and nutritional counseling with Dr. Adriana Zavalaga. These treatments have been life-changing for her no less than the surgeries. She now eats and speaks just like any other child.

Kristhell holding her pet cat in 2019
Kristhell holding her kitten. Photo taken in 2019.

The MCF staff always goes above and beyond — when Dr. Evelyn noticed Kristhell was near-sighted, she gave us a voucher to make an appointment with an eye doctor then donated her glasses to Kristhell so she could see in the meantime!

Kristhell in school
Kristhell in school

Kristhell is a very intelligent child. She is also talkative, a good sharer, and very funny. It breaks my heart to think that, without Smile Train and MCF, she might never have been able to go to school or express herself clearly. Now, the sky is the limit for her.


Our Impact in Peru, as of March 2022


cleft surgeries sponsored since 2001


active partner surgeons


active partner hospitals

Just before the pandemic, she had a third surgery, from Dr. Percy Rosell, a doctor she has known since she was born, and it healed beautifully. This is why I always say no when people ask why I don’t take my daughter to the cleft surgical missions that sometimes fly into Lima — I prefer to have Dr. Rosell (and Dr. Olga, and Dr. Evelyn, and Dr. Adriana) treat her because they have known her for her entire life. Who could care for her better than that?

Kristhell with her dog and brother
Kristhell with her brother, dog, and cat

Smile Train has changed everything for my family and me. Now, every time I see a child with a cleft, I am the one who gives their mother Kathy’s number. I tell her that clefts are not something of out this world. Sure, a cleft may shock you because people will look at you wrong, but these are our children. We have brought them into this world, and MCF and Smile Train will help them overcome everything.

Kristhell flashing two peace signs in front of a chicken coop
Kristhell flashing peace signs

I am so grateful to Smile Train’s donors. They are making so many children happy, and the people who work there and at MCF are incredibly kind.

Kristhell with her family
Kristhell celebrating her birthday with her brother, father, and mother

Though my husband had a hard time bonding with Kristhell at first, he now has something he wants me to pass along to you:

I didn’t know what to do until you showed up in my daughter’s life. Now, she lacks nothing. I am always grateful and hope Smile Train will continue to support many more children. I have no words. Thank you infinitely, from the bottom of my heart.

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