Looking Back at 25: Jingtee and Nalee

A personal story of why Smile Train’s model matters

La Vang and Ming Lao were very happy together: La Vang worked the land while Ming Lao joined other women weaving traditional rugs and then selling them to tourists in the bazaar. When Ming Lao learned she was expecting a child, their happiness swelled.

After months of joy, the couple held their breath and reached out to hold their new baby boy for the first time… and saw a split in his lip like nothing they had ever encountered before. Frozen in panic, they didn’t know what to do or who to call. They could barely breathe.

But the shock soon gave way to total, overwhelming love. Though it seemed Jingtee would be in for a harder life than they had anticipated, La Vang and Ming Lao vowed to always be by their son’s side no matter what.

Ming Lao was snuggling Jingtee to her chest one day in the market when an American tourist looking to support local artisans noticed him.

She bought a rug, but knew there must be more she could do to help. Once home, she emailed Smile Train.

Our local staff tracked down the family right away and scheduled Jingtee for free cleft surgery at our local partner, Mahosot Hospital, for when he turned six months old.

When the day came at last and the couple saw their baby after surgery for the first time, they again had no words for the sight before them.

But the words came back soon enough. They always do. “My son was reborn,” La Vang said after a while.

Two years later, their daughter, Nalee, was born. Like Jingtee, she also had a cleft. Unlike her big brother, she had a cleft lip and a cleft palate. Trying to nurse without a roof of the mouth meant she choked every time she tried to feed.

She would have been at severe risk of malnutrition or worse, except this time, the family knew exactly what to do. They immediately reached out to Mahosot Hospital. The team was eager as before to do whatever they could to help, but this was 2020. They could not safely perform cleft surgery amid the pandemic.

The months dragged on, but the family never lost hope because they knew that, as Smile Train partners, the Mohosot team was still going to be there for them tomorrow, and the next day, and every day until it was safe for Nalee to have the surgery she needed to thrive.

Smile Train was founded 25 years ago in the belief that children with clefts and their families deserve safe cleft care that’s always there, from trained, well-equipped local professionals who know them like family.

So while cleft organizations that send missions of outside surgeons into then out of underserved communities all but ceased to function during the COVID-19 pandemic, our local partner cleft teams were still there because they live there, still providing care, comfort, and guidance to families as possible — and were ready to start performing surgeries again the moment it was safe.

For La Veng, Ming Lao, and Jingtee, that brought priceless piece of mind and stability through a chaotic time. For Nalee, our model may have saved her life.

“I would like to thank Smile Train for helping my children. I would like to say that their favors will be remembered until I die,” said La Veng. “I will also tell both of my children not to forget about Smile Train and Mahosot Hospital that helped us.”

Did you know that Smile Train won an Oscar® in 2009? Or that a landmark peer-reviewed study found one cleft surgery can contribute up to $50,000 to the beneficiary's local economy? As we celebrate our 25th anniversary, we look back at all the many, unexpected ways supporters like you have helped us light up the world with smiles.