Children with Clefts Can Depend on Tammy Vujanovic

Her American dream is helping make others’ dreams come true

Tammy holding a Smile Train sign in Mexico

Some of Tammy Vujanovic’s earliest memories are of being the only one who could help. The daughter of refugees from the former Yugoslavia, her grandparents relied on her to translate the strange world of South Burlington, VT to them in ways that went beyond language.

Though born in Vermont herself, growing up having to straddle two cultures always made her step back and consider her relationship to her surroundings. Her parents guided her with some hard-earned advice: Wherever you find yourself, look for ways to give back.

So when she was crowned Miss Vermont Teen USA 2016, her favorite part was the previously unimagined opportunities for making a difference that came with the tiara, like getting involved with Smile Train.

“I learned that children with clefts needed care, and I was in a position to help them get it,” she said.

She felt so blessed to play a part in saving these children’s lives that she vowed to keep doing it even after she handed over her sash and moved to Mississippi for college.

Ole Miss Vermont

Tammy chose Ole Miss for the weather, but the culture shock of moving from Vermont to the Deep South gave her a taste of what her parents must have experienced. So she again turned to their advice: Wherever you find yourself, look for ways to give back.

She started a student group to get her community involved in volunteering around the Oxford area but still kept in touch with her contacts from Smile Train. And the more they taught her about clefts and Smile Train’s unique model of supporting free, local, comprehensive cleft care the world over, the more it moved her.

She told everyone she met, peers and professors alike, that donating to Smile Train is an easy thing we can all do to help transform the lives of children in need. She couldn’t believe how many responded with stories of loved ones, friends, or neighbors with clefts.

“It's interesting how clefts really are everywhere,” she reflected. “You just don't realize it until people feel comfortable talking to you about it.”

Tammy sitting at her Ole Miss Smile Makers booth on campus
Tammy canvassing for the Ole Miss Smile Makers on campus

She converted her little campus club into the Ole Miss Smile Makers, an official chapter of the Smile Impact Society, Smile Train’s undergraduate advocacy group. Before long, Tammy was known as the campus authority on clefts, and she would not let her reputation down — or the children who needed her. Even at the height of the pandemic, she attended every Smile Impact Society Zoom session to check-in with her fellow student cleft advocates across the country, learn more about how a large nonprofit is run, and acquire strategies for fundraising during lockdown.

By her senior year, helping children with clefts was more than an interest; it had grown into her life’s passion. Her original focus, pharmacology, no longer felt right. Though she had still never met anybody with a cleft, she yearned to get even more personally involved in helping this community. So after graduation, she enrolled in University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) School of Dentistry and signed up for the Young Leadership Circle (YLC), Smile Train’s cohort for grad students and young professionals.

I’ve always liked knowing people could depend on me for something,” she said.

An Unforgettable Introduction

Tammy in her dental school lab coat
Tammy is now training to be a professional smile maker

Now surrounded by others who shared her passion for smiles, one of the first things she did in dental school was call a meeting with her new classmates, plus some grad students in other cleft-related fields like speech pathology, and introduce them to clefts. And she was just getting started.

Tammy with her dental school mentor, Morgan Baker
Tammy shares a smile with her student mentor, Morgan Baker

Each year, UMMC dental students are required to complete an external service-learning project with an educational component. Tammy knew exactly what hers would be and had a few ideas for others who were less sure. She called another meeting and announced that they were going to make a 10-minute video introducing audiences to clefts. Everyone would have a role: You can write the script, you can edit, you can research, you can shoot, you can provide the voiceover.

Tammy with some of her peers at UMMC dental school
Third-year dental students receive white coats to signify the transition from the classroom to patient care. L to R: Karsen Maddox, Tammy, Mary Agnes Mestayer, Paige Smith, Bayley Graves

The end product was something members of the cleft community told her they always wanted: a social-media-friendly video explaining what clefts are and why they matter that anyone can post or repost.

“That first year was a good introduction, like, hey, I’m this person who cares about clefts.”

Tammy Runs a Marathon

That summer, Tammy found herself at a crossroads. She wanted to go bigger for YLC in the coming year. And as she approached her 23rd birthday, she also wanted to do something big for herself. She just didn’t have any big ideas for either.

These blank ambitions were on her mind as she Zoomed into that summer’s YLC meeting. Just before closing the call, Ariana Gould, Smile Train’s Senior Manager of Community Development, told everyone to reach out if they knew anyone who might be interested in running the Big Sur Marathon the following April for Team EMPOWER, Smile Train’s endurance athletics squad.

Tammy had never run a marathon before. She had never run a half marathon or a 10k and usually just walked to class. But it planted a seed in her mind. That might be a nice thing to consider in a few years, she thought, when she had more time to train.

“Oh, so you’re interested?” Ariana asked.

Well, I didn’t quite say that…

“Okay. Well, if you’re interested, let me know.”

They needed people to run. They were depending on her. All at once, that seed sprouted into a full-grown tree. She asked her professors if they would give her time off if she decided to run a marathon. They said yes.

“Well, I guess I’m running a marathon.”

The first thing Tammy learned about running a marathon is that when you tell people you’re running a marathon, they get excited and say things like, “Oh, I could never do that!” and “I can’t believe you’re doing that during school!” And before you can say, “Yeah, me too,” they’ve already chipped in a donation and sent your fundraising link to all their contacts.

The second thing she learned is that yes, it is hard to train while keeping up with dental school. She started by running a few hours each weekday, then more on Saturdays. By January, she had made the leap from running five or six miles to running 13.1 for the first time ever. It felt good. And it brought a revelation.

“That was the point where I realized this is more mental than physical.”

She flew to California feeling confident. Then she landed and had another epiphany. “This is in a mountain range. This is a really legit marathon.” It seemed like everyone she met had been living the marathon lifestyle for years.

Tammy takes a selfie on the cliffs at the Big Sur International Marathon
Tammy is not afraid of the mountains of Big Sur

She also met a pair of Team EMPOWER runners who were there to support their daughter with a cleft.

They were the first people she had ever met who had a child with a cleft. She had a million questions, and they answered them all with a smile.

Then it was time to run. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in sheer will. She pushed herself up mountains even as she labored to breathe in the thin, dry air. Her legs seared. Her shins felt like spaghetti in boiling water.

Wherever you find yourself, look for ways to give back.

She thought of her new friends. The fear they must have felt when they got the news. The countless, grueling treatments their little girl has had to endure since the day she was born and will continue to endure until she’s in her twenties, at least. Running this marathon was something she was doing for them, for her, and it was nothing in comparison.

She crossed the finish line in 5:38:46.

Tammy holding her medal at the finish line
You can depend on Tammy to reach her goals

“It was tough, really tough. Knowing that it was for families with clefts got me through. I can run for one morning and afternoon and it's going to hurt me. But for people with clefts, the struggles will last much longer.”

The Smiles Dreams are Made Of

If finishing Big Sur was a dream she didn’t know she had until she did it, her next adventure fulfilled a dream she’s had since she first learned about clefts: Meeting Smile Train patients in person.

As one of the YLCs most prolific fundraisers of 2023, Tammy and a few other members of her cohort were invited on an exclusive Journey of Smiles to Mexico City, where they got to witness just some of the real impact their fundraising makes each day for children in need — like Pia.

“She was a ball of energy,” Tammy laughed. “She loves life. You could tell her parents are doing everything to make her have the best childhood she can have, even when her doctors’ appointments sometimes get in the way of school and learning and fun. But she was so happy and so willing to have us in her home and show us her drawings and her costumes that her mom makes for her.”

The group also toured Pia’s favorite place on earth, where she goes to play with friends, get the medical care she needs, and even learn karate: Centro SUMA.

It was soon one of the Journeyers’ favorite places, too.

Tammy was particularly impressed by SUMA’s state-of-the-art dental clinic. “I loved it. It was perfectly set up for cleft patients and the specialized care that they need.”

Tammy’s Secret to Success

Tammy has come a long way in just a few years, but she got to where she is today the same way she won Miss Vermont Teen USA, got into dental school, went from couch to marathon, and raised thousands of dollars to help save the lives of children like Pia — by following her natural drive to do good wherever it takes her and never looking back.

Tammy holding a set of plastic teeth in her chair in dental school
Tammy is serious about smiles

She has some sage advice for other young people who are likewise eager to give back, wherever they find themselves:

“Don’t fear the word ‘no.’ So many people fear rejection, but really, they should fear the opposite. If you don’t even try, there is a 100% chance you will be rejected. When I sent my first email to Smile Train, I could have thought, ‘They’ll just push the trash can button and never reply.’ But I sent it anyway, and they replied. And kept replying.

“If someone does say no the first time, try again. If you show someone why they should invest the time or the energy in you, they will usually listen. You don’t need all the details up front, you just need the spirit.”

Smile Train always loves to hear from people who want to make a difference! Tell us what makes you smile, and we’ll help you use it to bring smiles to children in need.