Journey of Smiles to Guatemala was a Masterclass in Smiles

A tiny, tropical taste of the good Smile Train donors make possible each day

In February 2023, eight people young and old from America and the UK found themselves in Guatemala City. Most didn’t know each other, but they all knew why they were there: Because they so believe in the transformative power of a child’s smile.

For each of the eight, this Journey of Smiles to Guatemala was the reward for countless hours raising money and awareness for Smile Train in their communities. At last, it was time to get just a taste of the real, lifesaving difference their efforts make every day.

They started with a visit to Tess Unlimited, a local Smile Train partner totally dedicated to comprehensive cleft care, starting from feeding and nutrition programs to get newborns with clefts to a healthy weight for surgery.

The Journeyers watched in awe as mothers fed infants who once couldn’t nurse with ease through specialized techniques they just learned.

“The biggest challenge we have in our nutritional programs is that most of our babies are so extremely malnourished they are actually in danger,” said Tessa de Goede, the center’s founder and director. “Many times, we do have to hospitalize them, and it will take a very long time to get them on the right weight for their first surgery.”

Tessa was quick to remind her visitors that it wasn’t always this way in Guatemala. Before she started Tess Unlimited, there were only one or two cleft teams in the country, and no locally based comprehensive care centers. She took it upon herself to be the difference these babies needed, and the tireless efforts of Smile Train donors, including the Journeyers standing before her, have been critical to her success.

But what good is a smile if you’re not having fun? The Journeyers spent most of the visit laughing and playing with the patients, many of whom reminded some Journeyers of themselves or their children with clefts.

That message got even more personal when they met Smile Train patient Gael at his house in an underdeveloped part of the city. The moment they arrived, he ran to greet them with a broad, confident smile.

Many cried as his mother, Wendy, described her struggles after having a child with a cleft and how much Tess Unlimited and Smile Train helped her not only cope, but grow into, as one Journeyer described her, "Superwoman.”

Gael’s hero’s journey is no less remarkable. Though his life began in fear, anxiety, and a real risk of malnutrition, today, he is a budding painter, flush with as much life and color as the Central American rainforest.

For the Journeyers, spending the afternoon coloring with him was the best art masterclass they could have ever asked for.

“It was little things like that that made me so proud to know I am contributing to this, that I am helping make this possible,” reflected Journeyer Sarah Thomas, age 17, from New Jersey. “My Journey of Smiles was the best experience I’ve ever had.”

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Our impact in Guatemala

as of April 2023


cleft surgeries sponsored since 2007


active partner surgeons


active partner hospitals