In Colombia, YLC Members Get a Taste of Their Impact

Mountains, Magic, and Memories in Medellín
YLC members with Smile Train patient Valery and her brother, Andreas

Christine, Lisa, and Brenda, three young women from America, had just met in person and were now cautiously feeling their way down narrow stone steps stuck haphazardly into a steep mountainside, dodging darting cats while pivoting past precariously placed sacks of sand. They knew that somewhere along this endless, railing-less staircase, someone was waiting for them. At last, after the 170th and last step, the person they were looking for popped out of his tiny brick house, a half-eaten ham sandwich in his hand and a huge, hammy smile on his face.

Christine going up a narrow staircase in Medellin
Christine on the narrow, steep, cluttered stairs

“¡Hola!” hollered three-year-old Mathias.

Mathias and Yesica greet the YLC at their house
Yesica and Mathias greet the YLC Journeyers at their home

Instantly, their smiles matched his. Without saying a word, the women knew this child would change their lives almost as much as they had changed his. And this was still only the first hour of the two-day Young Leadership Circle (YLC) Journey of Smiles to Medellín, Colombia in April.

Different Paths, One Journey

As members of the YLC Board, Christine Smessaert, Lisa Fast, and Brenda Zuniga are dedicated to raising awareness of clefts and support for Smile Train in their communities. Though each woman’s purpose in coming on this Journey of Smiles was the same — to meet just a few of the cleft patients and local medical professionals their fundraising has helped empower — each took a very different path to that little house that day.

Christine Smessaert
YLC Co-Chair Christine Smessaert

Christine, an executive assistant from Chicago, has been a YLC Board member for five years and is now co-chair. She worked with children with clefts while studying speech therapy in college and knew how deep — and how misunderstood — their needs are. Though she ultimately pursued a different career, she just couldn’t leave these children behind. In the YLC, she found the perfect way to keep making a difference for these vulnerable children and their families.

Lisa Fast
Lisa Fast

Lisa, from Orange County, CA, was born with a cleft. She stumbled across an ad for Smile Train in her early teens, and her whole family jumped at the opportunity to help give other children the same quality of cleft care she had. When her mother, Michele, was tragically murdered four days before her 16th birthday, her family decided to raise funds for Smile Train in tribute to a woman who made everyone smile. It became a tradition; every year since, Lisa’s community has come together to support Smile Train in Michele Fast’s honor.

Brenda Zuniga
Brenda Zuniga

Brenda is a musical comedian, mindfulness coach, and mental health activist from Los Angeles. In 2018, she was organizing a charity show at The World-Famous Comedy Store in West Hollywood; all she needed was the charity. When a friend recommended Smile Train, she “fell in love.” When she told some of her friends about it, including Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Mark Maron, Kyle Dunnigan, Pete Holmes, Pete Davidson, Jesus Trejo, Bryan Callen, and many others, they fell in love, too, and performed the show for free. Supporting Smile Train has since become an integral part of her advocacy for healthcare that touches the mind, body, and soul.

Rewriting Their Story

Mathias is a ball of boundless, happy energy. He rushed to meet the YLC Journeyers, and when they gave him a Smile Train teddy bear, he ran around pointing to the train on its shirt shouting “Choo choo!” through bites of sandwich.

Mathias with his bear in one hand and sandwich in the other
Mathias cuddles his new Smile Train teddy bear while eating his ham sandwich

He could have turned out very differently. His parents, Yesica and Jose, told the women they had never seen a cleft before their son was born. “It was extremely difficult because my dream was breastfeeding. But when he was born, he couldn’t do it because of his cleft,” Yesica shared.

As a family living on less than $2 a day, they thought they would never be able to provide their son the care he needed to live. Yesica pumped but couldn’t get enough, so supplemented with formula they could scarcely afford. Mathias may have become malnourished or worse If he hadn’t quickly been referred to Fundación Clinicas Noel, Smile Train’s local partner in Medellín.

Helping Families Pull Through

Mathias with his family
L to R: Jose, Mathias, Yesica, and Yesica’s niece Marisol

Smile Train’s unique model makes all the difference for patients like Mathias and their families. Unlike mission-trip-based cleft organizations, Smile Train empowers local professionals, providing them with the training, funding, and equipment they need to provide a full range of cleft care to children in their own communities 24/7. Thanks to this model, Clinicas Noel has been able to provide Mathias with not only two timely cleft surgeries, but the pediatric and dental care, speech support, ENT services, and psychosocial counseling that have made him the healthy, joyful child he is today.

The psychosocial support has been especially important, as Clinicas Noel offers it to the entire family. “Since no one ever had experience with a cleft before in our family, it was a bit difficult, a bit complicated,” Jose confessed. “Thankfully, we had the support of the psychologists then and we pulled through.”

Mathias' family with the YLC Journeyers
Maithas’ family with the YLC Journeyers

When told the three women standing before her helped raise the money that made her baby’s miracle possible, Yesica did not mince words:

“I thank you, because without you, we wouldn’t have been able to pull through with the boy. Thanks to God and to you, we have been able to get ahead and we have had all the help possible. We feel very grateful to all of you.”

"Just Look at Her"

From there, the Journeyers traveled across the city then up a mere two flights of even steps with a railing to visit 12-year-old Valery and her family.

Valery with her parents and brother
L to R: Jaime, Valery, brother Andreás, Diana

The moment they welcomed Christine, Lisa, and Brenda into their home, Valery’s parents launched into their family’s story so they would know exactly what their support has meant to them.

Diana and Jaime explained that their daughter struggled to feed as an infant and needed nutritional support to be healthy enough for surgery. Even after surgery, she struggled to speak. She was bullied so mercilessly that they parents had to homeschool her for two years.

Lisa, Christine, and Brenda listen as Valery tells her story
Lisa, Christine, Brenda, and Smile Train's Manager of Community Development Ariana Gould listen as Valery tells her story

But thanks to people like their guests, Valery has received multiple cleft surgeries, years of speech therapy, ENT services, psychosocial support, and more. Their support also allowed the whole family to receive psychosocial counseling when they needed it — and they all needed it, especially her little brother. Bullies once tore into him for the way his sister looked and spoke, but he’s no longer ashamed. He’s her proudest defender on the schoolyard.

Well, second proudest. Valery is now back in school, happy and confident, and wants to be a surgeon so she can help other children with clefts and teach them that anything is possible.

Valery with a Smile Train bear
“We don’t have to say words, just look at her,” Jaime said. “Gratitude, for all you’ve done. We just have gratitude.”
Lisa taking a selfie with Valery
Lisa taking a selfie with Valery

Valery’s story particularly resonated with Lisa. After hearing it, she pulled the girl aside to share her own. “I told her I had the same appointments. I understand that it’s hard, but I know that it’s worth it,” she said. “Meeting her reminds me that having a cleft affects people here so much more than it affected me. She motivates me to keep working with the YLC.”

All this in one morning. The Journeyers said goodbye to Valery and her family just after noon. With half a beautiful, clear day ahead of them, the Journeyers ate lunch then embarked on a tour of breathtaking Medellín.

Where Dreams Come True

The next morning, the women woke early to visit Clinicas Noel. They never thought they would be so excited to visit a hospital. But after yesterday, they understood that for children who have known so much isolation, suffering, and shame, this place is so much more than a hospital. It’s where their wildest dreams come true.

An imaginary friend come to life at Clinicas Noel
A happy creature who lives only at Clinicas Noel

In this modern, beautiful facility, happy imaginary friends dance on rainbow walls. Hallways have hopscotch courts, and every face has a smile to share. But, they soon learned, by far the most special thing about Clinicas Noel are the patients and their families, like four-month-old Celeste and her mother, Alejandra.

Alejandra holding Celeste just before her cleft surgery
Alejandra holding Celeste just before her cleft surgery

Celeste was minutes away from receiving her first cleft surgery, yet Alejandra somehow found the presence of mind to tell the Journeyers her story and answer their questions as her baby cried in her arms. When her time for surgery came, the women wished them both luck. They would see them again soon.

Brenda playing with Smile Train patient Violeta in the lobby at Clinicas Noel’s cleft clinic
Brenda playing with Smile Train patient Violeta in the lobby at Clinicas Noel’s cleft clinic

While Celeste was in the OR, the Journeyers met patients receiving other essential cleft services. In the lactation room, they watched as 17-day-old Emiliano’s father, Ricardo, lovingly fed him breastmilk through a specialized bottle. Emiliano spent his first his first five days in the NICU, then flew 400 miles with his family to Clinicas Noel, where they heard they would receive the best care in the country, completely free.

Ricardo snuggling Emiliano
Ricardo snuggling Emiliano

Under the guidance of a cleft nutritionist trained by Smile Train, Ricardo gave the baby to his wife, Marcela, who delicately but confidently held him to her breast in the way she came all this way to learn how. He greedily nursed away.

Brenda and Magali share a smile
Brenda with her new friend Magali

The women next explored the orthodontics wing, where they met Magali. She and Brenda formed an instant connection. “We started to take selfies together, and we just started bonding,” Brenda recalled with a laugh. “All of a sudden, she would come up to us and give me a big hug, say ‘Bye!’, then two minutes later, come up and do it again. It was the most beautiful thing. It was a magical moment.”

The Room Where It Happens

The YLC Journeyers with Celeste immediately after her cleft surgery
The YLC Journeyers with Celeste immediately after her cleft surgery

When Celeste came out of surgery, the Journeyers scrubbed in to witness the moment she was handed back to Alejandra. It was life-changing for everyone in the room.

Alejandra crying as she holds Celeste just after her cleft surgery
Celeste just after her cleft surgery

“It was incredible to see how happy she was,” Lisa said. “It was very emotional for me because it made me think of my mother. Twenty-six years ago, she would have been holding me like that.”

It was a fitting end to two days of highs and lows dramatic as the mountains of Medellín.

Brenda and Christine in Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood
Brenda and Christine in Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood

For Christine, Lisa, and Brenda, this Journey of Smiles was reminder that the YLC Board isn’t only about having fun and networking. It’s about being part of a special cohort of young professionals who save lives, empower healthcare workers, educate against stigma, and give hope to families — those they just met no less than the hundreds of thousands of others they may never meet, each with their own unique stories and unforgettable smiles.

Christine poses with graffiti in Comuna 13
Christine poses with graffiti in Comuna 13

“The YLC matters,” Christine said. “It is important for us as young leaders to educate and spread awareness to others who might not be aware of what Smile Train does. We’ve just experienced it. Now we have to go spread the word.”

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