Smile Train Helps Spread Cleft Speech Therapy Across West Africa

How a speech therapist from Benin is helping Smile Train patients find their voice

Faysal and Edouardo sitting at a table with a speech therapy patient

Many think that cleft treatment ends once the last surgical suture is sewn. But in fact, cleft care stretches far beyond the operating table. Since many children with clefts learn to speak with an open palate, for example, they often struggle to be understood when they speak, even after surgery. Specialized speech therapy is essential for these children, but in much of the world, cleft-trained speech practitioners are few and far between. Edouardo Adjassin is spreading this vital practice through West Africa, helping children who thought they would never be understood find their voice.

Edouardo smiling outside, chest-up
Edouardo Adjassin

“Bringing speech to someone, for me, is bringing them life,” said Edouardo. A passion for speech and language led him to a career in speech therapy. He says working with children with clefts was a spontaneous decision but well worth it.

His results are astounding.

Most patients and families come into speech therapy without knowing what it is or how it will help. After the very first session, or even during it, parents’ eyes light up at the sound of their child saying things they never thought possible. As time goes on, patients learn more sounds and develop their speech even further. The most gratifying part for Edouardo is hearing the child’s family and friends gush over how their loved one is becoming easier to understand and more talkative.

An older patient practices cleft speech therapy activities she’s learned while Edouardo watches in the background, out of focus
Edouardo feels blessed to be a part of every patient’s cleft care journey

Edouardo didn’t always specialize in cleft speech therapy. Before partnering with Smile Train, he had only worked with three children with clefts in seven years at his practice at Centre Medico-Social Luc Au Jourdain in Benin. But since becoming a Smile Train partner, patients who once couldn’t access speech therapy or didn’t know it was an option have been coming from up and down the country for his services.

Edouardo taking a picture of the inside of an older patient’s mouth with her tongue sticking out. Faysal stands beside him. Both are wearing masks
Speech therapy isn’t just for children. Edouardo works with patients of all ages!

And Edouardo isn’t just helping patients. While many speech professionals learned how to work with children with clefts before Smile Train, most received no practical training. Specialized exercises and evaluation techniques for children with clefts were only talked about, never practiced; when they had an actual patient with a cleft, these professionals didn’t know how to apply what they had been taught. So Edouardo left Benin to provide in-depth, in-person speech therapy training to peers across West Africa. Faysal Hamzah, a speech therapist at Smile Train partner Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Campus in Togo, is one of his star students.

Faysal outside with his arms crossed
Faysal Hamzah

Faysal was first exposed to speech therapy at a young age. He grew up with a stutter, and it inspired him to help others with speech disorders. Like Edouardo, Faysal rarely worked with children with clefts before encountering Smile Train. Now, with Edouardo’s guidance, he’s even more confident in his ability to help these children speak with confidence and dignity.

Faysal sees himself in many of his patients. Though their issues are different, he, too, struggled to be understood in ways that hurt his confidence. When patients come to his office unmotivated, he tells them his story.

“I have experienced what they are experiencing today, and if I was able to overcome it, it means they can do it too.”

Without even knowing it, these patients have just taken the first step to overcoming their speech challenges: believing they can.

A young boy sitting and playing a speech therapy board game
From board games to flash cards, there’s no shortage of fun in speech therapy!

For young patients, speech therapy often happens through games. “Everything must be done in a playful context so that the child finds pleasure in what we are doing,” Faysal said. Games aren’t as common when working with adults, but no one is too old for humor, which, in his professional opinion, is always the best method for helping a patient open up and smile.

A woman sitting across from Faysal at speech therapy, smiling down at some papers
Faysal and his patients share smiles throughout treatment

When patients finally graduate from their speech therapy, they feel they have been given a second chance, ready to take on the world. With the help of caring specialists like Edouardo and Faysal, people with clefts across West Africa are losing their fear of being misunderstood.

A group of Smile Train speech therapy patients and their families smiling together
A group of Smile Train speech therapy patients and their families smiling together

“When you’re able to discharge a patient, it feels like magic,” said Edouardo.

But work like this is even better than magic – it’s real, and it makes children’s dreams come true.

Help Smile Train change lives all around the world.