Tara Blanco: "Whatever Your Kid Dreams Of Being, They Can Still Be That."

How this speech therapist is using her experiences to pave the way for children with clefts.

Tara Blanco

Tara Blanco was born with a cleft in a small town in New Mexico. Growing up, she endured countless surgeries and therapies, which sometimes made her feel different from her friends. After years of hard work and determination, she became a pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP) and a member of Smile Train’s Cleft Community Advisory Council (CCAC). Read her story below to learn how she works to help other children with clefts and show them that they, too, have a bright future ahead.

My parents had no idea that I was going to have a cleft. My dad thought they cut me in the cesarean and my mom was a kindergarten teacher, so she kind of knew what it was but didn't really know all that it entailed.

Since they didn’t know a lot, they researched and my dad interviewed a lot of doctors before they chose surgeons. They always had a notebook of questions they'd like to ask, like, "How many kids have you done cleft surgeries on? What's your experience? How many are you doing a year?"

My parents come from a very small town, so they had never seen anything up close like this. But they were just very open and honest. They took a million pictures. I have pictures from day one until now; my mom is a big scrapbooker.

My cleft was just part of life. And it wasn't a bad part, either. It was just one more thing about me for mom to document.

Tara as a baby

As I got older, I wore braces for eight years, so that's a huge memory of mine in middle school and high school. It was just constant orthodontist appointments. I remember being very conscious of what I could eat and how often I needed to brush my teeth at school.

I had surgery on my jaw when I was 17, and that was the most painful surgery I’ve ever had. I didn't eat solid foods for about nine weeks afterward. I still wasn't eating when I went back to school. My friends were great – they would all go get ice cream, too, or we would get yogurt, or someone's mom would make soup. Everybody would take a break from solid foods, and it was so cool to have friends who were like, "Oh well, I guess we're all just eating tomato soup for the next two weeks."

I am going to have another nasal surgery this October. I had put it off for so long because the last one was so painful and I needed so much recovery time. I still have difficulty breathing, so, 15 years later, I am preparing for what I hope is my last cleft-related surgery!

Tara recovering from surgery with teddy bears

I have great memories of speech therapy. I was really lucky; I had really amazing speech therapists, and I think that's why I do this now. I went to a preschool for kids with disabilities, and those therapists and teachers made it so fun. Same in elementary school – I don't remember ever not wanting to go. They were always kind, fun women, the kind I wanted to be around. 

There is one speech therapist in particular who made a huge impact on my life and the work I do today. Her name is Jodi Dragony.

When I was a senior in high school, I had the opportunity to shadow a speech therapist for my senior project. I decided to go back to my old preschool and follow Jodi. She came back into my life then and stayed a part of it through college and grad school, and we still keep in contact through Facebook. I've known her my whole life, and it's been really cool seeing her now that I am an SLP, knowing that the little kid who couldn’t talk when she was with her, now does the same thing. 

Tara and Jodi

I think it helps me to always remember that I used to be on the other side of this. It helps me be open and tell my patients, "I have experienced this firsthand. Yes, it can be hard; yes, it can hurt. Therapy is not going away anytime soon and you're going to be in it for a while." That sounds a little harsh, but I think it gives them some small look into the future, helps them know it’s a long road, but it’s going to be okay. I tell them, “Whatever you dream of being, you can still be that."

Tara being fed

The importance of giving back was something my mom instilled in me from when I was very young. I got involved with Smile Train through her. My mom donated and I remember the little postcards we used to get in the mail thanking us for our donations.

So last year, when I saw the open applications for the Cleft Community Advisory Council (CCAC), I was really excited for the opportunity to get to know other people with clefts.

Even on my first Zoom meeting, I was like, "Oh my God, everyone here looks like me." When you live your day to day not seeing other cleft affected individuals often, seeing others gives you an instant connection that is indescribable. That first meeting made me really want to get more involved, to show everybody that the cleft community is going to be out in the world doing whatever we want to do. We’re unstoppable.

I would like people to know that cleft treatment doesn't end with the first surgery; I think that's something we need to be more open about. There are so many other things that go into it. There's always another treatment you need to be getting ready for.

All that treatment has made me stronger today. My cleft really made me into the person that I think I was meant to be. No one else can be a speech therapist like I can. I am grateful for the journey. I am grateful for all the lessons it has taught me. 

Interested in getting more involved in the cleft community? Learn more about Smile Train’s Cleft Community Advisory Council.