Providing a healthier future for children with cleft lip and palate

By Anita Stangl, Past President of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, California, USA; Founder of Alliance for Smiles

One out of every 594 newborns in the United States is affected by cleft lip and palate. That’s over 6800 children a year. Left untreated, the health and social implications for these children is devastating. I knew I had to do something to help these kids go on to live happy and healthy lives.

In 2004, I partnered with five members of my Rotary Club of San Francisco to provide sustainable treatment for children with cleft lip and palate deformities. Together, we founded Alliance for Smiles (AfS). Our goal was not only to send medical teams to provide free surgeries for children in developing countries, but also to establish treatment centers that would provide long term, multi-disciplinary care for these children.

Children in developing countries do not have access to comprehensive treatment like those in the developed world do. We wanted these underserved children to have the same opportunity, which provides not only surgery, but years of follow up care including additional surgery, orthodontia, speech therapy, dentistry, and family counseling.

We started our work in China, and have had 71 total successful missions treating almost 6000 children. These missions have included vocational training teams funded through the Rotary Foundation. The support we have received from Rotary has been substantial through global grants, individual clubs, districts, and Rotarians.

Every child and patient we treat is important. I want to share one child’s story that really touched me. We met Xin Qi Pei in the Guizhou Province of China. This lovely and sweet child had more severe deformities than most of our patients. Her condition seemed hopeless, but our volunteer maxillofacial surgeon, Dr. Gagan Sabharwal, felt compelled to help her. He was convinced that surgery would drastically change her life and the way the world looks at her.

In Dr. Sabharwal’s words:

“The moment I saw Pei, I wanted to help her. At first, there was hesitation from the rest of the team because her case was so complex with major complications. I knew that her father would have gone to many hospitals only to face rejection over and over again. Which is why I convinced the team to take on her case, knowing I wouldn’t let her down and could change her life.

Although the surgery was difficult, the most touching moment was in recovery when her father saw her for the first time. He sat quietly next to her and admired her for almost five minutes before bursting into tears. He then told me how he had traveled to different parts of China, to many hospitals since she was born, and no one felt they had the skills to help her. He was so thankful to us for giving his daughter a new life.”

We are currently active in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and a number of African countries.  Each place poses its individual and unique challenges.  To help us understand the local community needs, we have successfully partnered with Rotarians from the Gulshan Lake City Rotary Club in Bangladesh and the newly formed Rotary Club of Yangon in Myanmar. We also have some wonderful Rotarian partners in African countries, as well as other local affiliates outside of Rotary.

Our core goal is to create international peace and understanding.  We aim to change lives for the better through free reconstructive surgery and the development of educational programs.  Our patients, the parents whose lives we change, and the people with whom we partner are affected by the kindness and humanitarianism of our volunteers.  On each and every mission, we aim to spread hope, and create peace among nations.

Learn more about the work we do on our website or email me to get involved in our efforts.


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