Even when I was young, I loved to talk. If you ask my family, they’ll say from the second I could form coherent sentences, all I would do was babble nonstop about anything and everything. I loved telling stories, asking questions, and even singing. But as I got older, I became aware that something set me apart from others—I was born with a cleft palate.
When I talked, people looked at me funny—they thought I did not notice, but I did. The confused looks and stares from strangers would make me hide behind my parents. It led to bouts of shyness and severe separation anxiety. It also led to a fear of using the one thing I loved—my voice.
At age 3, I went through my first operation, and subsequently, my speech therapy. During my first year of therapy I would cling to my parents and cry because I was scared and didn’t really understand what was happening. Eventually, the fear went away and I would spend my Saturday afternoons practicing my ch’s, g’s and p’s. I’d repeat saying letters and do drills over and over again, and I’d get frustrated when I couldn’t make the sound correctly. I wasn’t aware of it then, but those Saturday afternoons changed my life.
Fear and uncertainty
Four years later, I had my second operation. I remember the fear, the wariness, the uncertainty. I remember crying all the way to the operating room.
I remember the unbelievably kind doctors who gave me their reassurances—one of them even played a game with me in the operating room to make me laugh. Most of all, I remember how extremely thankful I was for the support of my family, my doctors and my therapist.
Years went by and I still went through therapy every Saturday afternoon; I would read aloud short stories and poems, and talk about what I liked or what I didn’t like. I was actually starting to enjoy it.
At this point in my life, I had my group of friends in school—those I was genuinely comfortable with. I no longer hid behind my parents or cried every time they left.
However, I still was not confident enough to speak in public. I couldn’t introduce myself to strangers—I felt like I didn’t have a voice. Nevertheless, I was still lucky enough to have been brought up in an environment that wholeheartedly accepted me.
There were people I met who would ask me a simple “Why is your voice like that?” out of curiosity, but not out of judgment. Over time, I started to feel more comfortable with who I was. I also found ways to further express myself through writing, clothes, and cooking and baking.
As the years went by, I learned more about cleft lip and palate to better understand its issues and challenges and, as a result, have become less embarrassed and more accepting of my condition. I slowly started to find the voice that I felt was missing most of my life.
Three years ago, I reflected a lot on my journey and realized that I wouldn’t have made so much progress if it weren’t for the support of my doctors, my therapist, and most especially, my family and friends. It was then that I felt a passion to educate myself more on Operation Smile and the work they do for children with the same condition as me.
I joined a medical mission in Sta. Ana Hospital, and the joy I felt when I helped a little girl waiting for her turn in the operating room was incomparable to anything I had ever felt before. The realization of how life-changing Operation Smile’s mission can be resonated with my own personal experience and reinforced my belief that no child with a cleft lip and/or palate deserves to feel voiceless.
I’m 17 now, and I’m thankful to have developed the courage and confidence in speaking out and expressing who I really am to the world.
However, if I’m being completely honest, there are still times when I feel the fear and the doubt, and wished that I wasn’t so different.
But then I remember my journey of countless steps that took me to where I am and who I am today. That self-acceptance wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have the help and support that I received all throughout my life. That voice I thought I lost, that I thought wasn’t good enough, I realized, had power and uniqueness. Just because my voice is different doesn’t mean it is any less valid.
Very soon, I will be opening a small home bakery business, called Flutter Bakery, where I am proudly able to express myself through the baked goods that I will be selling.
In order to help support Operation Smile’s mission of providing children with cleft lip/palate the opportunity to receive proper medical care, I intend to partner with Operation Smile by pledging a portion of my profit and devoting my time to help support their initiatives.
No child born with a cleft palate deserves to feel voiceless and different. Everyone deserves to have their stories told and heard, just like mine. —CONTRIBUTED