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Teresa Bridges: Love Yourself and Respect Others

There is nothing more important for parents to teach.

Teresa at 11 years old

Teresa Bridges was born in 1960 with a cleft lip and palate. Her small-town Georgia family found a local doctor to perform her cleft surgeries but Teresa still struggled greatly growing up. Her journey to self-acceptance was long and difficult but these obstacles turned her into a stronger, more resilient person. Please read as Teresa reflects on what she learned from a place of forgiveness and compassion.

Teresa at 11 months old
Teresa at 11 months old

Thrown into the Lion's Den

Growing up, Teresa hated school.

She has no fond memories of her childhood. All she remembers is the anxiety of going to school and her classmates’ casual cruelties.

“Facing my classmates was like being thrown into the lion’s den,” she said.

Bullies taunted her for her looks and played tricks on her, and their words cut deeper than knives. Her cleft made her the center of unwanted attention, yet it also made her feel invisible and small — neglected and rejected by those around her.

Teresa learned to always get to class early so she could sit in the front row and avoid her classmates altogether. She did not want to give them the chance to turn around and stare at her, and as long as she sat in the front, her classmates could only see her back, not her face.

She came home crying every afternoon, but there was little comfort waiting for her there: her mother was emotionally unavailable and her father was rarely home due to his 12-hour work days. She had no network for support or security. For most of her childhood, Teresa felt alone.

Teresa at 11 years old
Teresa at 11 years old

It all took an emotional, social, and academic toll.

Life taught her, from a young age, to be embarrassed and ashamed of herself and her looks. She was conditioned to find flaws — and only flaws — in herself.

With no motivation or encouragement to do well in school, her grades were consistently Ds and Fs. Like all children, she had hopes for the future: She had always wanted to be a registered nurse — to help and care for people — but bullying extinguished this ambition. Because of her failing grades, she would never see this dream come to fruition.

Teresa at 15 years old
Teresa at 15 years old

Teresa's Anxiety and Fear as a New Parent

Teresa became a mother in her 30s.

When Amanda was born, Teresa had an emergency c-section. In the operating room, the doctor told Teresa and her husband that their newborn baby, Amanda, had a cleft.

The moment she heard the news, Teresa saw herself in her daughter.

She had the instinctual need to protect her child, to do whatever it took to make sure Amanda grew up healthy, strong, and confident.

However, underlying this lay the realization that, even after all these years, she was still living in the shadows of her trauma.

As she held Amanda in her arms, Teresa looked to her husband. She was afraid that she was ill-equipped to be a mother. She doubted whether she would be able to fully protect Amanda from the cruelties of the world.

“I don’t want her to go through what I went through,” she cried.

“It will be okay,” her husband consoled her. His words steadied her. It was comforting to know that she would not go through parenthood alone, but the anxiety was still very much there.

Amanda at three months old
Amanda at three months old

Teresa's Journey Through Parenthood

When Teresa first brought Amanda home, the baby cried all the time. She had colic, and when the doctor examined her, he said she was not getting enough milk from her bottle due to her cleft.

The hospital staff didn’t know how to properly feed Amanda, and Teresa didn’t find any outside support or resources to help parents take care of children with clefts. Teresa went through many different bottles trying to feed her baby to the best of her ability.

She was harsh on herself. She thought she should know how to take care of a baby with a cleft, instead of feeling dumbfounded.

She also didn’t bring Amanda out in public until she had received her first surgery.

Teresa remembered how, when the family went shopping, Amanda would always choose the saddest-looking stuffed animal or the one with a missing eye. Like her mother, Amanda wanted to be there for those in need.

There were times Amanda complained to Teresa about someone staring at her or making crude remarks about her appearance at school. Every time, Teresa would call and speak to the teacher.

Task by task, step by step, Teresa made sure to always be there for Amanda. She always told her to be proud of who she is, what she looks like, and where she came from.

Ultimately, Amanda was never bullied and ridiculed like Teresa was, and Teresa found incredible consolation in the knowledge that her daughter was well-accepted by her peers.

Aboard Smile Train

Teresa has made it her lifelong goal to help children and adults born with clefts.

Even if her dreams of becoming a nurse were dashed, Teresa still wanted to do everything she could to make sure all children could have the opportunity to live a safe and healthy life. Her first chance came when she joined a nonprofit organization traveling to the Philippines to help children with clefts. The work made a deep impression on her, and she longed to do more.

In 2020, Smile Train reached out and asked if she would like to join the Cleft Community Advisory Council (CCAC), the organization’s board of cleft-affected Americans who help advance their communications strategies and work to strengthen the US cleft community. Teresa accepted without hesitation.

Although she was shy at times, the other CCAC members made Teresa feel truly accepted and valued in a group setting for the first time. That’s why she joined the CCAC’s Engagement Committee, which works on providing opportunities for the CCAC members to connect and bond with each other outside of their meetings.

Teresa with her daughter Amanda at four years old
Teresa with her daughter Amanda at four years old

The Lessons and Values Teresa Learned

Teresa is now 61, and Amanda is 35, with two healthy children of her own.

As a parent and a grandmother, Teresa has learned many lessons throughout her life.

She learned how difficult it is to reject a deeply ingrained negative self-image after being so conditioned to see herself as “lesser than” — unworthy of love and respect.

But becoming a parent made her realize that this was the last perception any parent would want for their child. It is important for parents to validate their child’s feelings and be their first and most valuable source of support. Teresa was capable of providing all the love and care her child needed to thrive not despite her past, but through and because of it.

And through the CCAC, the whole global cleft community will now benefit from all she has to offer.

“If your child can learn to love themselves, then they will have value, and they know they are worthy of being liked and loved,” Teresa said.

Every child deserves to be heard, seen, and respected. Help us build a world where every person knows they are worthy of love and respect.

Learn more about the CCAC