By Alex Y. Vergara
When Kimmy Coseteng-Flaviano, country director of Smile Train Philippines, invited fashion designer Dennis Lustico a few months ago to be one of its volunteer donors for the Cobra Ironman triathlon event in Cebu this August 6, Lustico didn’t have second thoughts about joining.
Smile Train is a US-based non-profit organization whose advocacy is to provide free operations and post-operative care for children as well as adults with facial deformities such as harelips and cleft palates, including providing them with speech therapy to correct their tendency to speak nasally or in a muffled way (ngongo in Filipino).
As a donor, Lustico and 10 other racers, including a former beneficiary of Smile Train, have pledged to donate at least P100,000 each to the NGO. Lustico plans to raise funds by allocating part of the proceeds he earns from selling made-to-order clothes and bags. His fellow donors will also be resorting to creative and traditional ways to generate money for charity, including direct solicitations from friends and family.
This is Smile Train’s first team up with Ironman in the Philippines, but it has been partnering with the global triathlon organizer in other countries, particular in the US, for several years now.
“As long as it’s for a worthy cause, I’m all for it,” said the Samar-born, Manila-based Lustico, one of the country’s leading designers, who has been joining marathons and triathlons for several years now.
Giving back isn’t new to the fitness-conscious Lustico, who, prior to signing up with Smile Train, also helped raised funds for cancer patients as one of the featured designers in a benefit fashion show organized by I Can Serve foundation. Last year, Lustico, a registered nurse, also designed functional pieces of clothing for sick and ailing patients attached to catheters.
He has yet to meet any of Smile Train’s beneficiaries, but he has a clear idea of the physical limitations as well as emotional trauma people with harelips and cleft palates have to go through every day. One of Lustico’s good friends in high school, who’s now based in Baguio, had a harelip.
“His harelip has been addressed, but even up to now, he’s still a bit conscious about it. He sometimes tends to unconsciously cover his mouth whenever he speaks,” he said.
“Smile Train’s efforts resonated with me because of my friend. And when I learned that they’re paying for the operation of 6,200 individuals in the Philippines per year, I realized how big the problem was,” he added.
Smile Train partners with a number of reputable but second-tier hospitals in Metro Manila and the provinces, which do the operations on their beneficiaries. Partnering with major medical centers in leading cities is out of the question due to higher fees these hospitals normally charge.
There are two main types of facial disfigurement Smile Train helps address. A harelip condition may be limited to the upper lip extending to either one or two nostrils. In more complicated cases, the separation could extend up to the person’s upper gums all the way to his palate or roof of the mouth.
There are some cases where the upper lip and the area above it remain intact, said Flaviano. If you look at these people, their faces seem okay. The deformity is confined to their cleft palates, which affects their speech and even their intake of food.
“That’s why it’s important to address these problems as early as possible before the child reaches two years old,” she stressed. “Because once they start to speak, people with cleft palates would sound ngongo. That would require speech therapy even after the main problem has been addressed later on.”
Not only that, many children with harelips or cleft palates would most likely grow up psychologically scarred or suffering from inferiority complex. There are cases, especially in the provinces, when these children grow up into illiterate adults.
“Because of the teasing they get from classmates, many children with harelips and cleft palates are discouraged from attending school,” Flaviano explained.
Part of the post-operative care provided by Smile Train includes reconstructive surgery, including dental work and nose jobs, to address any of the beneficiaries’ glaring deformities in the nose area.
Smile Train doesn’t have data on the incidence of harelips and cleft palates among Filipinos, but Flaviano, based on the global norm, estimates that one in 500 Filipinos are born with varying degrees of these two types of facial deformities.
Science has yet to find out the exact cause of these facial deformities. But the cleft usually happens during the first trimester of pregnancy. For some reason, the baby’s face failed to fuse completely during this crucial period resulting in harelip and cleft palate.
The incidence is higher than the global average in Southeast Asia, and lower in Africa. These conditions are partly traced to genetics, poor nutrition, and lack of vitamins on the part of the pregnant mother, said Flaviano. Mothers who smoke, drink, or take drugs are also putting their unborn babies at a higher risk, she added.
“By partnering with organizations like Ironman, we’re making it easy for supporters like Dennis to help Smile Train,” she said. “Since they’re doing what they love to do by signing up for the race, they might as well help us raise awareness and money for a worthy cause.”
To know more about Smile Train, go to smiletrain.org, like facebook.com/SmileTrainPhilippines, call (+63917) 528-7246, or email Philippines@smiletrain.org
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