Sarah Thomas: Clefts Are a Problem We Can Solve Together

Just take that first step

Sarah Thomas with a patient and her mother in Guatemala

As a girl waiting for the school bus in Mumbai, Sarah Thomas often saw children with clefts on the street. Their appearance sparked so many questions: Who are these children? Why do they look like that? Why are they so thin?

But another question stopped her from asking any of them: Why is everyone else ignoring them? She figured this must be one of those things you just weren’t supposed to talk about.

Her international school frequently invited charities to give presentations on their work. When she was nine, one of them handed her a brochure with a picture of a child like those she had seen at the bus stop. Next to it was a picture of that same child with a radiant smile where their cleft had been. The images reassured her. Someone else noticed these children, too. And not only were her questions okay, they had an answer: Clefts are treatable.

“Smile Train really stood out because it felt like such a solvable problem,” she said. “Even though I was only nine, helping a child smile was something I could fully comprehend, which is not something that I did with a lot of other organizations.”

Yet, this answer posed an even bigger question. Sarah has always been a problem solver, the kind of girl who can’t do anything else if there’s a single puzzle piece missing, and the missing piece here was so glaring that it kept her up at night:

If we know how to make these children smile, why aren’t we doing it?

She wasn’t able to get involved then, but the question never stopped bothering her.

In fifth grade, Sarah moved with her family from Mumbai to a small town in Virginia. It was a steep transition, but she soon found friends, community, and purpose in one of her new country’s greatest traditions.

“I fell in love with volunteering because it made me feel like I was actually like one step closer to solving something,” she said.

When a friend needed help setting up her Zumba classes at the YMCA, Sarah was there. When the library needed someone to help organize everything from blood drives to children’s programs, Sarah swooped in, eager to help resolve the problem.

A Puzzling Move

Three years after moving to Virginia, Sarah’s family moved again, to Plainsboro, NJ. A competitive, high-achieving culture dominated her new school, but Sarah wasn’t fazed. This was nothing but an opportunity to put her unique experiences to work for her new community. So she ran for student council — and won.

One of the first orders of business on the council was to nominate a charity to fundraise for at the winter dance. Four years and eight thousand miles after first encountering Smile Train, Sarah was ready for this moment, to finally slip that last piece of the puzzle into place.

She poured hours into preparing her presentation; she even got in touch with Smile Train’s headquarters for additional resources and information. The more she learned about clefts and their treatment, the more before-and-after photos she saw, the more certain she grew that this was the right cause for her and for the dance. She pictured her fellow student council members, the whole school, getting fired up for a rare opportunity to make a real, tangible difference in children’s lives — while still teenagers.

She was devastated when she lost.

A NAACH-ural Fundraiser

But Sarah didn’t get down, she got determined. After all, children with clefts still needed help. She found the perfect fit in Smile Train’s Student Ambassadors program.

Sarah smiling in front of Smile Train’s headquarters
Sarah in front of Smile Train’s NYC headquarters

For her first fundraising event as a Student Ambassador, she hosted a charity night at a local Panera Bread. She advertised all over school, and, by the time the restaurant closed its doors that night, she had raised $250 for Smile Train.

She was hooked; her first step as a fundraiser made her want to take many more. She was particularly eager to find a way to combine her newest passion with her oldest one, dancing.

So she started a charity of her own. Through NAACH (Hindi for “dance”), she and her friend Siya teach dancing around Plainsboro, culminating each summer in a dance intensive and recital to benefit charities in India.

“I started my own nonprofit because Student Ambassadors taught me how easy fundraising is. You just have to start, and that’s it.”

Fundraising in Sustainable Fashion

The hottest item at Sarah’s school last fall were colorful, handmade string bracelets from a company called Pura Vida. She had to have one herself, and when she went to their website, she saw something she absolutely could not say no to: They made custom designs for fundraisers!

Sarah’s custom-designed blue-and-red Pura Vida bracelets on display with Smile Train leaflets
Sarah’s custom-designed blue-and-red Pura Vida bracelets on display

A few weeks later, she was selling Pura Vida bracelets to her friends and family in Smile Train’s signature blue and red. They proved so popular that reached out to cover her story, and that took her fundraiser viral. Now the hottest item in Plainsboro is Pura Vida bracelets that also help give smiles to children with clefts.

”The Best Experience I’ve Ever Had”

In December 2022, at just 17, Sarah took the biggest step yet along her fundraising journey: Traveling to Guatemala for three days to meet Smile Train patients and medical partners in person on a Journey of Smiles.

Sarah was ecstatic to sign up, but, when the plane took off, nerves consumed her. She would be the only high schooler there. She had never been this far from her family before. “My mom was frantically texting me the whole time.”

Sarah smiling in Guatemala
Sarah taking it all in in Guatemala

But when she stepped off the plane and walked headfirst into a thick blanket of humidity, lush greenery, and low houses, when a breeze tickled her nose with the scent of wild mangos, she felt almost like she was back home. “I wasn’t expecting to get homesick for India in Guatemala,” she laughed.

Her feelings only got warmer as her Journey continued. Her fellow Journeyers welcomed her like family, and so did the patients and partners. Her favorite experiences of the trip were her visits to Tess Unlimited, a Smile Train partner in Guatemala City, and to the home of a patient named Gael.

As she describes it:

“We just got to play with the kids all day and talk to them. They were all so happy, and their parents were so dedicated — I've never seen parents who put that much into their children. It was so amazing to see this entire hospital dedicated to just clefts. I just think that Tess is just the most amazing initiative.

Sarah playing with Gael

“Gael was the coolest cat. When we showed up, he rushed to greet us and talked to everyone. He loves coloring, so we gave him a coloring book. We all started coloring with him, and he told us what colors he thought were appropriate. It was so incredible to see how happy he was, how he feels totally free to live his life. And that was especially impressive after listening to his mom, who was talking about her own issues and the struggle she's gone through with him. She’s a force of nature, she’s like Superwoman. She’s given everything to Gael. And she told us about how Smile Train has really helped her through everything. Even during the pandemic, the team called them constantly to check-in.

Sarah with a little girl with a cleft and her dad at Tess Unlimited
Sarah with a little girl with a cleft and her dad at Tess Unlimited

"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.

Sarah surrounded by new friends at Tess Unlimited
Sarah surrounded by new friends at Tess Unlimited

“My Journey of Smiles was the best experience I’ve ever had.”

Piecing It All Together

Once back in New Jersey, Sarah put a Tess Unlimited brochure on her desk and looks at it every day. It reminds her of her Journey, of the importance of taking risks and standing up to do good even when you’re nervous, because people like Gael and his mom depend on it.

Sarah is a senior now and will start college in the fall, a fact that daunts her more than moving halfway around the world, running for student council in a new school, and traveling to Guatemala with strangers ever did. Inspired by Smile Train, she wants to major in public health since she sees it as the perfect blend of science and problem solving.

She thought she wanted to follow that up with a career as a doctor, maybe even a cardiologist, but “Guatemala has made me reevaluate everything.”

Observing how the speech specialists at Tess Unlimited helped children grow from barely understandable to clear and confident speech so moved her that she recently started shadowing a speech therapist in Plainsboro. “It’s made me realize just how much I love working with kids,” she said. “I love playing games with the patients to help improve the way they speak, and what could be better than playing with kids in a way that also helps them?”

Sarah Thomas with a patient and her mother in Guatemala
Sarah with a patient and her mother in Guatemala

She may not yet know how she wants to put the pieces together to fit her passion for problem solving into a career, but she is completely certain about what kind of school she wants to go to. She has one criterion: “If they don’t have a Smile Impact Society chapter, I’m probably not going there.”

For any young person who's scared to take the first step to getting involved with something you’re passionate about, don't worry about being new and not knowing what to do. Never be afraid to ask questions. Don’t sit and fear what could happen, just go out and do it. Honestly, every person is a resource, everybody's willing to share. You just have to ask.”

No matter your age or interests, Smile Train can help you turn your passions into lifesaving cleft care for children in need.