Genaro is a farmworker in Mexico. He doesn't have a stable income, and he and his wife, Ariela, had trouble making ends meet. Still, when Ariela learned she was pregnant, the couple could not contain their excitement. Little as they had, they found enough to save each day to give their baby all they thought he would need.
When they first saw his little face, their hearts sank. He had a break in his lip and a hole in the roof of his mouth. Neither Ariela nor Genaro had ever seen a baby like this before and were terrified — how could they ever afford the extra care their beautiful boy would need to be healthy?
The first time Ariela put Alexander to her breast to nurse, the milk dribbled out his nose, choking him. Ariela tried everything; nothing worked. He got skinnier by the hour and cried with constant hunger night and day.
Overtired and overstressed, she poured her whole soul into finding ways to care for her baby. When Alex was eight days old and nearly skin and bones, they followed a tip and took their newborn on a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to DIF Hidalgo Children's Hospital. With no money and no insurance, they did not have high hopes that this major hospital would see them, but they were desperate.
The moment they stepped through the doors, they were warmly welcomed and immediately introduced to the cleft team, including Dr. Eduardo Varela. As he examined Alex, Dr. Varela explained that healing a cleft requires much more than a single surgery. It is a long journey that can involve dozens of treatments over the course of a child's first 20 years and will necessitate patience and perseverance from the whole family.
He answered their follow-up question before they could even ask it: because DIF Hidalgo partners with an organization called Smile Train, that day's consultations, along with all the other cleft care Alex would ever need along the way, would be provided 100% free.
Ariela and Genaro began to cry. That rush of overwhelming joy that had eluded them when they first held their son at last washed over them.
Resolve, Resilience, and Results
Alex's course of treatment began right away. The orthodontic team fitted him for a custom device that would begin to close his cleft until surgery was possible. Nutrition specialists then inserted a small tube into the device and taught Ariela and Genero how to syringe-feed him through it.
Thrilled as they were to see their baby looking stronger and healthier by the day, the family's troubles were far from over. Going to and from DIF Hidalgo took an entire day on public transportation. The specialized formula Alex needed was expensive, more than they could easily afford. But what the family lacked in resources, they made up for in resolve.
Their tireless efforts paid off. In just a few months, Alex had gained enough weight to safely receive his first free Smile Train-sponsored cleft surgery.
It was a great success. He could now eat and smile and grow along with his peers. It would seem a happy ending, but in truth, the family's cleft story had barely begun.
A Fresh Start
The good news filled the family's home with joy. Still, the possibility of having another baby with a cleft cast a cloud over the celebration; Ariela and Genaro would not be surprised again. By her seventh month of pregnancy, Ariela had saved enough for an ultrasound.
The blurry image on the screen made it clear — their daughter would also have a cleft. Familiar fears came flashing back. Then Ariela and Genaro breathed and smiled. They knew what to do; they had a team of some of Mexico's top cleft specialists already in their back pocket. Their little girl would live, speak, and smile like any other.
When Ariela first held Kendra to her breast, she had the specialized equipment she received from DIF Hidalgo ready to go. A few days later, Kendra made her first visit to the cleft team, who immediately got to work preparing her long-term treatment plan.
We always try to be good kids, so we don't have to live with another label." - Alex
Twice-weekly trips to DIF Hidalgo were now a family affair. Besides treatment, the four of them joined other cleft-affected families at the hospital for monthly conversation circles to build community with others who know what it's like.
This network of support proved invaluable when Alex started school. Areila and Genaro made sure he never missed a Smile Train-supported speech therapy session because they worried he would be picked on for the way he spoke.
Alex never worried. If someone made fun of him, he ignored it. And if they asked him about the way he looked, he said, "I had an accident and that's why I have a scar," and left it at that.
Things are harder for the more reserved Kendra. But that's what big brothers are for. Alex is there for her when she struggles, with strength and a smile that always makes things better.
Alex and Kendra believe their clefts have given them an advantage over their peers. Having to work hard to eat, speak, and smile from the moment they were born has taught them tenacity. Every treatment completed, every clear sentence spoken is another achievement unlocked.
A Cleft Education
Ariela and Genaro have always emphasized that what their children go on to do isn't as important as whether they do it with kindness and empathy. Growing up between their parents' home and the halls of DIF Hidalgo has given both children the inspiration to do good and the confidence that they will achieve it.
Though only 12 years old, Alex wants to become an architect so he can provide the underprivileged places to live with dignity. At nine, Kendra wants to be a cleft specialist so she can help others as she has been helped.
The Advantage of Smile Train’s Local Model
Both Alex and Kendra have completed the surgical parts of their treatment and are now in speech therapy; Kendra is also receiving specialized orthodontics. They still have many years left on their journeys.
Without immediate support for nutrition and pre-surgical orthodontics, this brother and sister team may never have survived to receive surgery at all. And, without further orthodontics, dental support, speech therapy, and connection to a local cleft community, they may never have had the confidence to speak up in school, make friends, and pursue their dreams of changing the world.
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