Ten years ago Brian Mullaney decided to help some children in need of plastic surgery with the resources he had available to him. Suddenly, he had created a new model for helping children with cleft lips and palates around the world, called Smile Train, which has now operated successfully on over 500,000 children. His organization now saves lives on a daily basis by offering free surgeries to children who need it. Last year, Megan Mylan shot a documentary about Smile Train’s incredible work in India, called “Smile Pinki,” which won the Academy Award. I spoke with Alexis Thomas, head of Public Relations for Smile Train, to learn more about this truly moving organization.
Love and Water- Tell us how Smile Train came into existence.
Smile Train- Our president, Brian Mullaney, was riding the subway about ten years ago and saw a child with a huge mole on his face. He was working for an ad agency at the time that represented a number of plastic surgeons. He had the idea that maybe he could have one of the plastic surgeons he knew help this child by removing the mole. He knew a number of them donated their time pro bono, so he began facilitating help to some children that way. He eventually partnered with other organizations that helped children who needed surgeries on cleft lips and palates, and went on a Missionary trip to Vietnam as a result. He met a child there- they called him “soccer boy”- who had a cleft lip. Brian got to be good friends with the boy while he was there, but by the time he was getting ready to leave the little boy still had not received his surgery. The Mission could only perform 150 surgeries out of the 600 children who needed them, and the little boy did not make the list. Brian then decided he wanted to create a new model that was able to train local surgeons to perform this kind of surgery, and that’s how Smile Train came about.
L&W- Can you talk about how the process of Smile Train works?
AT- A lot of countries have doctors who aren’t able to perform surgery on a cleft lip or palate because they have either not been educated as part of their medical program, or the country lacks funding to teach them. So Smile Train identifies surgeons worldwide and funds them to give them the training they need to learn this procedure. We do the same for surgeons who aren’t trained in plastic surgery, because the surgery is such a simple procedure that they can learn in no time how to do it, and then we have a bigger team of surgeons to work with. This way, we have doctors working every day of the year performing surgeries for free to children whose families can’t afford to have their cleft lip or palate fixed.
L&W- Can you explain what a cleft lip or palate is?
AT- It’s a medical problem that occurs in pregnancy between the sixth and twelfth weeks of carrying the child. We’re not entirely sure what causes it, and there is a lot of research going on right now to find out more about it, but we believe it is a combination of genetics and malnutrition, among other things, that causes the top lip and/or palate to not fuse together. It’s so problematic for kids in developing countries because they can’t get the nutrition they need- especially when they have a cleft palate- because they can’t form a suction with their mouths. A lot of people think it’s just a cosmetic problem, but it goes much deeper than that. Also, the cosmetic aspect is a problem as well, because kids are ostracized by others, including family members, and many can’t go to school because they can’t function properly.
L&W- You were telling me about the Academy Award-Winning documentary made about Smile Train called “Smile Pinki,” directed by Megan Mylan. I’ve watched it and it’s INCREDIBLY moving! How can others see it?
AT- We give the DVD out for free for educational purposes, so if anyone wants it they can contact me and I’ll send them one.
L&W- That’s fantastic. I’m sure you’ve had many, but what is one of the most moving experiences you’ve had so far with Smile Train?
AT- We recently found out that a soldier in Iraq, LT. Chuck Duggan, was patrolling his area right before Christmas and saw a young child with a cleft lip named Abdullah. He contacted a number of organizations to try to get him help and ended up finding Smile Train. Here is the original email he sent us:
Hello. My name is 2LT CHARLES DUGGAN. I am currently deployed to Baghdad Iraq. I am in command of a line unit here, and I deal with the local Populous on a daily basis. I feel very strongly about what it is that my men and I do here. I really want to make this area stable, and I do my part. In my area of operations there is a child that has a cleft palate. I see many small children that are being raised in poverty, however this one in particular has a problem in addition to living in these austere conditions. If I could improve this one child’s situation, I will feel as though I am succeeding at doing what I came here to do. I was wondering if you can help. I have pictures of the living conditions. He is about 3 years old. I know his father, and can go visit him later on this week. Thank you for your time: LT CHUCK DUGGAN.
We put him in touch with one of our partner doctors in Iraq named Dr. Ahmed Nawres, and the child got surgery two days later. Here is what Lt. Duggan wrote after Abduallah’s surgery:
This is why I came to Iraq….
Abdullah’s father called me just yesterday, and said that there were not enough words in any language to express how happy he is feeling right now. He says that Abdullah gets very excited and jumps up and down when he sees an American Convoy drive by. I’m very happy to do such a simple act, on my part. I plan on visiting Abdullah, and his family in the near future in order to check on his progress, and ensure all is well. I have to thank all of you who strive so hard to do this type of work, including Dr. Nawres. This is a success story that I will cherish for my entire life.
-LT. CHUCK DUGGAN.
It’s such a sweet story coming out of Iraq that touched me. It’s one of my favorites so far.
L&W- That’s one of the most touching stories I’ve heard so far. On that note, is there anything else we should know about Smile Train?
AT- I think the beauty of what Smile Train does is that for such a small amount of money we’re able to help so many children lead better lives. On average, each surgery costs around $250.00. So for that amount of money you know exactly what’s happening. It’s a very tangible reward, because it changes children’s lives.