Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala Lights Up New York with Smiles

Celebrating the power of a smile in style

Cipriani 42nd St in Manhattan decorated for Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala as Susie Schaefer speaks

Since our founding in 1999, Smile Train has believed that every smile is like a star: a source of limitless power and energy, drawing in all who are near, radiating light and wonder even from afar.

As we mark 25 years of lighting up the world with smiles, we wanted to take a moment to stop, look back at all the many stars that have joined our constellation over the years, look ahead to a bright future, and, most of all, celebrate!

Kate Bosworth and Justin Long share a laugh on the red carpet at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala
Smile Train Ambassadors Kate Bosworth and Justin Long share a laugh on the red carpet at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala in New York, May 8, 2024

So on May 8, we invited supporters to join us and some very special guests at the opulent Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City for an unforgettable evening of glitz, giving, and, most of all, grinning — our 25th-Anniversary Gala, generously sponsored by Bank of America, Haleon, Dentsply Sirona, and Beverly Hills MD.

Brutus Bone Broth partnered with Smile Train to bring three tiny, three-week-old puppies with clefts to the Gala to "barktend" and make “pup-ijtos”

Our dazzling host, TV personality and executive producer Jeannie Mai, set the tone with a moving reflection on her recent Journey of Smiles to visit Smile Train patients and medical partners in Vietnam. When she was nine, a close family member was born with a cleft. “I didn’t have a word for it,” she recounted. “I was very shamed, very intimidated, and I blamed myself.”

Jeannie Mai speaking from the podium at Smile Train's 25th-Anniversary Gala

“[So] I couldn’t believe what I saw in Vietnam. The system Smile Train set up is incredible. The staff was ready for each patient. They knew what to ask. It brought me to tears, wishing my mom had that when she needed it. It makes me hopeful everyone will have that. We’re here to make more of it over the next 25 years.”

Jeannie then introduced Smile Train’s President and CEO, Susannah Schaefer, who reflected on her relationship with her mentor, Smile Train’s visionary founder, the late Charles B. Wang. A flash of inspiration he had 25 years ago planted the seeds for everything Smile Train would grow into: 

Empowering medical professionals in low-resource regions with the education, training, and support they need to provide high-quality, free cleft care in their own communities would be safer, more efficient, and more sustainable than flying outside doctors in on short-term missions.

He called it the “teach a person to fish” model.

Smile Train President and CEO Susannah Schaefer speaking at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala
Smile Train President and CEO Susannah Schaefer speaking at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala in New York, May 8, 2024

Through economic crises, wars, and even a global pandemic… I think the results speak for themselves — tens of thousands of surgeons and interdisciplinary medical professionals trained, millions of successful surgeries, tens of billions of dollars in global economic impact, and a galaxy of smiles!

She closed with laying out Smile Train’s vision for the future: achieving a world where every person with a cleft has access to safe, high-quality comprehensive care and is able to live a full and healthy life.

Having reflected upon who we are and where we came from, it was time to recognize some women whose contributions are lighting the way towards this bold vision for the future.

First up, Susie welcomed Tantoo Cardinal, a cleft-affected actress known for roles in Dances with Wolves and Killers of the Flower Moon, among others, to the stage. She presented the Smile Maker Award, recognizing a cleft-affected person who inspires others with their courage and spirit, to Navajo weaver, model, skateboarder, and all-around star Naiomi Glasses.

Naiomi Glasses at the podium at Smile Train's 25th-Anniversary Gala

“If there’s a little boy or little girl out there who has BIG dreams and wants to live them someday… 

“I hope you can look at me and see that you can. 

“And for the cleft-affected kids who get bullied at school because they look different, I’ll tell you the same thing my mom told me: You are beautiful. You can do and be anything you want in this life.”

Next, Dr. Larry Hollier, Surgeon in Chief at Texas Children’s Hospital and chair of Smile Train’s Medical Advisory Board, stepped up to introduce the Teach a Woman to Fish Award, given to a female Smile Train partner who is a shining example of our founding philosophy in action.

Dr. Larry Hollier, Chair of Smile Train’s Medical Advisory Board, introduces the Teach a Woman to Fish Award
Dr. Larry Hollier, Chair of Smile Train’s Medical Advisory Board, introduces the Teach a Woman to Fish Award at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala in New York, May 8, 2024

As he powerfully detailed, there could be no more fitting winner than Sister Shoba Lonappan, head of the Female Surgery Ward at the Jubilee Mission Medical College Hospital, Smile Train’s partner in Thrissur, India, where she leads a dedicated team that cares for children from critical, at-risk rural communities. Since 2007, this incredible woman has been on the front lines: placing IVs, counseling parents, and helping children face the anxieties of surgery head-on. Whenever a child needs urgent medical attention, she personally ensures that he or she gets it. And she’s been part of 135,000 life-changing surgeries.

Though she is deeply humble, we simply could not celebrate our 25th anniversary without shining a spotlight on Sister Shoba and her stellar impact. Unable to join us in person, she graciously shared a recorded message:

Shoba Lonappan in a forested setting wearing a sari

“For me, the most rewarding part of my work is meeting the children after they have recovered from the surgery. They are happy and smiling, just like a healthy child should. And so are their parents. For me, this is the best feeling in the world.

“Smile Train has been a wonderful partner. You help us give these patients the care they need. You help us ‘teach a person to fish.’ These children come to our clinic helpless and afraid. With your support, they leave ready to integrate into society and enjoy a brighter, happier future.

“Your generosity is changing lives here in Thrissur and all over the world.

"From the bottom of my heart, thank you!”

After dinner, Jeannie and Susie returned to the stage to make a historic announcement:

Smile Train just sponsored our 2-millionth cleft surgery!

That’s two million new smiles. Two million second chances at life. Two million ways everyone who has ever donated any amount to Smile Train has made the world a better place.

Following a thunderous applause, Susie introduced the lucky child: Rajib, a 10-year-old boy from a remote riverbank in Indonesia — and his father, Alim, who after 50 years of waiting, received the 2,000,001st Smile Train-sponsored cleft surgery.

The final award of the night — the Goodwill Ambassador Award — was presented by Aoki Lee and Ming Lee Simmons to their mother: model, businesswoman, fashion designer, venture capitalist, entrepreneur, TV personality, philanthropist, and author Kimora Lee Simmons.

Kimora opened her acceptance speech with a simple question: What wouldn’t you do for a child? 

Aoki Lee, Kimora Lee, and Ming Lee Simmons at the podium at Smile Train's 25th-Anniversary Gala


“There is nothing I wouldn’t do for these kids. 

“Now, the amazing thing about Smile Train is that everybody in this family feels the exact same way. It doesn’t matter where you go, or who you ask. The answer is always the same. 

“There is nothing we wouldn’t do for the kids… 

“Because a child’s smile is universal.”

(Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Smile Train)

She went on to describe her recent Journey of Smiles to Peru, where she met Estephany, a young woman whose smile will stay in her heart forever.

After her surgery, this child was overflowing with hope and confidence. We practiced her runway strut, and I gave her some tips for her future modeling career. I got to tell her what I always say: hair, makeup, clothing… all that stuff is great, but nothing accessorizes like a smile! 

And here’s the magical part.

Not only was Estephany smiling to light up the world, but so was her mom. So was her dad. And me too, of course. Plus, crying a little. Okay, a lot… of happy tears.

Roy E. Reichbach, Chair of the Gala and of Smile Train’s Board of Directors, closed out the night with his own reflections about being a parent to five children, just like Kimora.

And also like Kimora, he would do anything for a child in need.

As Roy pointed out in his closing remarks, that also gives them a lot in common with everyone involved with Smile Train — board members, ambassadors, medical partners, and donors alike.

Jeannie Mai and Roy E. Reichbach share a moment on stage during Smile Train's 25th-Anniversary Gala

“Thank you all for your role in supporting Smile Train’s life-changing work — we really are moving mountains for people and communities around the world, and we could not do it without you.”

Capping off a night of shimmering stars, Jeannie and Roy announced that the stage was about to be lit with the brightest Sparks of the night — multi-platinum recording artist Jordin Sparks, who brought the house down with the classics “When You’re Smiling” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” to montages of Smile Train patients smiling and dancing, and her hit single “No Air.” 

“Jordin Sparks performs at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala
Jordin Sparks performing Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala in New York, May 8, 2024 

And the party was just getting started, because right after Jordin’s set ended, it was onto the afterparty featuring the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff.

DJ Jazzy Jeff in action at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala
DJ Jazzy Jeff in action at Smile Train’s 25th-Anniversary Gala (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Smile Train)

Two million surgeries. Celebrities. Live music and dancing. Red-carpet fashion. Puppies. It was a night for the ages, but beneath all the Times Square flair, everyone’s minds and hearts were with Smile Train’s patients and partners. We ate because we help them eat. We sang because we have the privilege of helping them sing. We smiled and laughed all night because we got together to ensure millions more children just like them will be able to do the same for the next 25 years and beyond.

That’s lighting up the world with smiles. That’s Smile Train.

The next 2 million life-changing cleft surgeries are in sight. We just need you.