Kenyan Drake and Mathias Kiwanuka Put Their Hustle to Work for Smile Train Patients

When it comes to helping children smile, there is no offseason
Kenyan Drake and Mathias Kiwanuka pose with a Smile Train patient in Argentina

Training camp doesn’t begin until August, but Las Vegas Raiders star running back Kenyan Drake is already hard at work. Only instead of knocking defensive linemen out of his way, he spent the summer using his trademark hustle to score big wins for children in need.

In June, he held his second Cocktails for a Cause event, in Las Vegas, to benefit Smile Train. A few weeks later, he traveled with former New York Giant and current Smile Train Board member Mathias Kiwanuka to visit our patients and local medical partners in Argentina.

It’s a lot of time and energy for someone with an NFL season starting soon, but for Kenyan, a Smile Train Global Ambassador, this work is personal. Clefts are a life-threatening birth difference that threaten babies’ abilities to eat, breathe, hear, speak, and so much else, on top of the crushing bullying, social isolation, and stigma they so often face. Though Kenyan doesn’t have a cleft, he did grow up with a gap tooth that robbed him of confidence and made him likewise embarrassed to speak or smile as a child. So having a cleft is “something I can relate to, even if in a small way,” he said. “Seeing how clefts affect kids, how they make them shy and have less self-esteem, made me want to be an ambassador for them.”

Kenyan Drake laughing while giving a speech at Cocktails for a Cause
Kenyan Drake addressing the crowd at his Cocktails for a Cause event

To see him at his event in Vegas, no one would have ever guessed Kenyan once struggled socially. At Cocktails for a Cause, he mingled merrily and confidently among 150 of his closest friends. And just like on the field, behind the fancy footwork lay a detailed gameplan: In their dancing, drinking, and dining, he made sure his guests would be inspired to donate to Smile Train.

As they danced to the live DJ, guests saw images of Kenyan smiling next to Smile Train patients on every wall. As they approached the bar, they were offered Smile Train-themed cocktails. And as they dined, they participated in a silent auction and heard Kenyan give a short speech about how he’s seen the difference Smile Train’s model makes with his own eyes and reminded them that they, too, can help completely transform children’s lives by donating tonight.

The strategy was a success. By the time the desert sun rose, Kenyan and his friends had raised more than $60,000 for Smile Train!

Mathias and Kenyan with Smile Train patient Benicio, who is holding a picture of himself before cleft surgery
Mathias and Kenyan with Smile Train patient Benicio at his home in Argentina

But for someone as competitive as Kenyan, one victory is never enough; you’ve got to go out and win even bigger next time. So two weeks later, Kenyan packed his bags and flew to Buenos Aires with Mathias to meet just a few of the patients, families, and local healthcare workers whose lives have been touched by Smile Train donors just like them. It was Kenyan’s third trip in four years to see our work up close and Mathias’ first.

Margarita before cleft surgery
Margarita before cleft surgery

Their first stop was Smile Train partner San Isidro Maternal and Child Hospital, where they met Jorgelina and her six-month-old daughter, Margarita, just before her free cleft surgery. A few hours later, they were with Jorgelina again as a nurse carried a still woozy Margarita out of the OR.

Mathias and Kenyan with Jorgelina and Margarita immediately after her surgery
Mathias and Kenyan with Jorgelina immediately after Margarita came out of surgery

Though she was calm before Margarita’s surgery, Jorgelina broke down in tears at first glance of her baby’s new smile with a joy and relief so powerful, so raw, it soon reduced the two football players to sobbing mush right alongside her.

Kenyan and Mathias with members of the cleft team at San Isidro
Kenyan and Mathias with members of the San Isidro cleft team

The men also spoke with two of the local experts who made Margarita’s transformation possible: hospital director Dr. Marcelo Suárez and the surgeon himself, Dr. Diego Steinberg.

Mathias holds a football, as Benicio comes running up to kick it
Mathias teaching Benicio how to kick a football

The next day, they had the opportunity to meet some older patients at their homes, like five-year-old Benicio. Born with such a severe cleft that he likely would have spent his whole life malnourished and isolated without treatment, Benicio is now a charismatic little dynamo, brimming with confidence and smiles, thanks to Smile Train’s donors.

Kenyan and Mathias throw a football around with Benicio
Kenyan and Mathias toss a football around with Benicio

Naturally, these NFL lifers couldn’t be around a bunch of young people and not teach them a little about American football. So, Kenyan and Mathias hosted a football clinic exclusively for Smile Train patients at the River Plate Athletic Club Museum.

Kenyan and Mathias breaking a huddle at their football clinic
Mathias and Kenyan in a huddle at their football clinic

Most of the children had never played or even seen the sport before but still lit up at the opportunity to just run and play without a care in the world. And in seeing the wonder and joy the game they love inspired in these children, Kenyan and Mathias’ faces glowed as brightly as theirs.

Though many of the children at the clinic may never be exposed to American football again in this fútbol-mad nation, the lessons they learned there that day — that people around the world care about them and want them to live with confidence, health, and smiles — will stay with them forever.

As will the memories — for the patients and their families no less than Mathias and Kenyan.

Kenyan posing with a patient at his home
Kenyan posing with Tobias, a Smile Train patient whose home he and Mathias visited

“A smile is so important; it's the first thing you see on someone. I believe that every child deserves to smile,” Kenyan reflected. “Being a Smile Train Global Ambassador allows me to champion and encourage all the children and families that the organization helps.”

Mathias with Benicio
Mathias taking a selfie with Benicio

For Mathias, this first trip to see Smile Train’s work up close reaffirmed his choice to become a part of this special organization. “When I learned about Smile Train’s model, I knew this was something that I really wanted to be a part of because everywhere this organization works, I know I can go back there ten, fifteen years from now and still see the work being carried out,” he said.

You can join Kenyan and Mathias in bringing life, health, and smiles to children with clefts around the world.

Donate now