In 2018, Luz Karime and her family fled violence in Venezuela to find safe harbor in Barranquilla, Colombia. Like many refugees, Luz Karime struggled to make ends meet but quickly found happiness when she met and fell in love with Ronald.
Two years later, Luz Karime and Ronald had a child, Luz Mayri, who, they were shocked to discover, was born with a cleft. Luz Karime struggled to nurse her daughter and was terrified that she might starve. So Ronald stepped up. He found a job and put every peso of his meager salary towards supporting his new family, but it seemed like it would never be enough to afford the care his little girl needed to thrive — and maybe even to survive.
A few months later, they learned about Fundación Fábrica de Sonrisas, a local Smile Train partner. There, the family’s sadness turned to joy as Luz Mayri was given her first free, Smile Train-sponsored cleft surgery at four months old. But the care didn’t stop there. Fábrica de Sonrisas also started Luz Mayri on telehealth services to ensure she could receive the follow-up counseling she needed while keeping the family safe from COVID-19. The team also scheduled occasional socially distanced home visits to deliver needed care in person, and it was when planning the November visit that Luz Karime received yet another life-changing shock. Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray wanted to know if she could join. She was excited to meet her and Luz Mayri.
Catriona was in town to judge the upcoming Miss Universe Colombia pageant, but, as a Smile Train Ambassador, she also made sure to take some extra time to spread love to local patients and their families. Luz Mayri was one of three Smile Train families Catriona visited that day, along with one-year-olds Sebastián (also a child of Venezuelan refugees) and Austin.
The next day, Catriona attended a special event with the Miss Universe Colombia delegates from each of Colombia’s 33 departments. After some opening words from Dianne Erquiaga, Smile Train’s programs director for South America, they were treated to a special performance from the Choir Fábrica de Sonrisas.
Choir Fábrica de Sonrisas is one of several cleft choirs Smile Train sponsors for our partners. Smile Train invests in these choirs because when children whose clefts once left them barely able to speak are given the opportunity to sing with their peers, something amazing happens. Their confidence is supercharged, and they start to believe they can do anything else they put their minds to. And to watch and listen to them is to experience joy itself. The Fábrica de Sonrisas choir recently performed at Smile Train UK’s annual Christmas Carol Concert to universal acclaim, and this performance, too, left the audience in tears.
When the concert ended, the delegates got to know their new favorite performers by working on Smile Train’s “9 Reasons to Smile Family Fun Activity Booklet” together. Available in many languages and filled with creative art projects and engaging family games, the booklet is designed to help children with clefts explore their emotions, their relationships, and their world. Paola Cazarán Bohórquez, the delegate from Casanare Department and a psychologist, gasped that it was the best book of its kind she had ever seen and asked for copies to use in her practice.
The delegates laughed and played together like old friends. When it came time for the women to leave, the kids were genuinely saddened but took comfort in the thought that they would always have the activity books they made together. And the smiles.
“This was an incredible opportunity for cleft-affected families to just be together,” said Smile Train’s SVP of international development Troy Reinhart, who attended the event. “No matter where you go in the world, it’s not common for children and families to have so many other friends with clefts like they do here, and that’s really a testament both to the commitment of the whole team here at Fabrica de Sonrisas and the power of Smile Train’s model of partnering with these amazing local organizations.”
“I’m always honored to use my platform to shine a spotlight on these moments that Smile Train makes possible every day all over the world,” Catriona reflected. “Those children, those families, those voices from the choir will stay with me the rest of my life. Maybe someday little Luz Mayri will look back at the pictures from our meeting and be disappointed that she was too young to remember it. But Luz Mayri, trust me when I say you, your heroic family, and your beautiful smile will stay with me in my heart forever.”
We interviewed Catriona about her experiences with these kids when she returned home to the Philippines. Watch it here!
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