Operation Smile is fast becoming a household name in South Africa, as more people become aware of life changing operations, done for people with facial anomalies.
Across Southern Africa many children are born with cleft lips or palates — a visible facial difference, requiring surgery.
Society rarely regards this anomaly as important, let alone understands it, if they are not directly affected.
The huge enterprise of finding, assembling and looking after people, mostly smaller children, falls to the lot of a tenacious group running the hands-on part of Operation Smile in South Africa. Local communities readily assist.
Members of Metamorpha Church, from Witbank, together with other community groups were in Nelspruit on September 28 and 29 to help with the work — and fun — that goes into screening children for possible surgery.
Church members helped by making and serving food at Bundu Lodge just outside Nelspruit, and by helping at the hospital, where a ward was being painted.
Madelaine, the hands on and ever-smiling Op Smile organiser, greeted the Metamorpha team, quickly assessed job profiles and assigned tasks. Her compassion for parents whose children would not make selection was very evident.
She seemed to be everywhere at once, working with Olivia Haslam, another member of Op Smile’s team. Tamlyn, Director of Operation Smile SA, also kept close to all that happened, constantly assuring parents of relevant details.
Three branches of “Woolies” Nelspruit sent staff members, who enjoyed entertaining the children.
Inside the small chapel at Bundu Lodge, the children played — tubs of clay and balloons were very popular, especially with the tiny tots. Other children kicked or chased balls in the garden and participated in art activities.
Smile Foundation, South Africa, was represented by Cleft Friends Supporter, Patsy Fulton, who was there with Metamorpha Church. She was graciously invited by Tamlyn to share with the parent group.
Patsy shared: “Parents bond with their babies, and with what their faces look like.” She showed before and after pictures of children who had already received their operations.
“This is what your baby’s lip looks like today, but tomorrow it will look like this,” as she indicated the change in appearance. “Your baby’s lip will look different. So today, kiss that mouth often, you will never see it again.”
One mom, who had heard this, and whose baby was there for a second op, later confided, “I am that mother. I have never accepted this baby.” She indicated her child, “I miss my baby’s face; the first one.” It is never too late to seek help in restoring relationship and coping with change.
Moms like this lady, brave enough to have come forward, need support groups, with facilities to provide professional assistance. That is why Cleft Friends, a project of Smile Foundation, started by Helena Cullis and Madge Blignaut of Port Elizabeth, is busy building Support Groups across the nation. One province at a time they want to reach people who need support.
Zeenani, 19, was a confident prince of the day, he chatted with other youth, while draped in a South African flag that Superman would envy. He was not in the least concerned at the slight evidence on his top lip, that as a child he too had received a life changing operation repairing a cleft lip.
Lindy, young mom of Zonique, who has a bilateral cleft lip, waited their turn to complete the documents required before the child would be considered as a candidate. Sadly not everyone would qualify on the day for the operation. Candidates need to be absolutely healthy — even a mild infection or ill health makes a person unsuitable. For people travelling great distances to be there, the disappointment of not qualifying is crushing.
Jeremy and his mom, Rishika, travelled from Actonville. When he was four years old Jeremy had 22 teeth taken out. He was in Nelspruit to have his palate op and to have grommets placed in his ears. Due to the physicality of a cleft, children often suffer from hearing or speech development needs.
The speech problems occur because certain of the mandatory sounds for speech are very difficult to make in their mouths. ENT and speech therapists are an integral part of developing Cleft children to their full potential.
Prospect, accompanied by a caregiver, Thumelo, 34, was from Holy Family Care Centre, in Ofcolacco, Tzaneen. At six months of age, Prospect was found, abandoned at the Beit Bridge Border post, between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Her cleft lip did not hinder her from eating soft corn sweets at a remarkable rate. This tenacious eighteen-months-old lives at the orphanage.
Alexander, 18 months, is of particular interest to Metamorpha Church, as they have avidly followed his story, praying for his successful operation and further development. He had his lip operation on January 29 2016, and was in Nelspruit, for his palate correction. Alex chased a colourful ball with his granny, Ricka in attendance.
Ouma Ricka said: “If it wasn’t for Operation Smile I don’t know where we would be?” Alex looks like a very determined, lively little boy. his Mom Ilsa was also with him for his first op.
Alexander’s family found out about Operation Smile on the Internet. An overseas branch referred them to Naadhira, here in South Africa. “We are all one big family now,” Alexander’s Granny smiled as she sang Op Smiles’ praises.
Louwkie, 39, is a shy, gentle soul with the courage of 10. Sadly he did not attain the health requirement level to have his operation. He sat quietly to one side.
As a child, Louwkie started school at a “normal” school in Pretoria, where he was persecuted.
He moved to a school for children with physical anomalies and children with mental disabilities, where he found people were more understanding. In Witbank he went to Kragbron School.
Louwkie said he always felt lonely and separated when cruel words were used to taunt him. What makes him different is how he responded to his attackers. “God made me this way,” was how he replied as he forgave them, “When you hurt me you hurt the Lord. When you tease me, you tease God.”
“My chance will come,” replied Louwkie when asked how he felt at not being operated on this time, “I will wait on God’s will.”
Third born in a family of five, Louwkie was unable to receive treatment as a child due to financial constraints. He experienced many hardships growing up.
Hearing the story of this man’s life is inspirational and humbling. His positive heart for God outweighs all.
A friend, Suzette, who calls Louwkie her brother, saw his potential and invited him to get involved.
He now helps at a pre-school in a Witbank Township where he keeps the garden and does handyman jobs. He is good at woodwork, and makes crosses which he gives away — these are his glory story for Jesus.
No one chooses to have a birth anomaly, nor should parents blame themselves when their child has a cleft lip or palate. Coping with the dynamics of feeding a baby which by the nature of the shape of its mouth, cannot suckle, is what makes the babies with birth anomalies different.
The more we as the community, like Metamorpha Church from Witbank, Woolies and Lions’ Club of Nelspruit, and others, get involved the better chance for people like Louwkie to have a better start in life.