Mission Possible: cleft lip and palate repair, one Filipino child at a time

Posted August 18, 2019 in Afni News
Fourteen-year-old Jarenz tries her luck to get her fourth cleft-palate repair through Operation Smile PH.

Dasmariñas, Cavite – At age 14, Jarenz Lantayan Hernandez is no stranger to surgeries. Born with cleft lip and cleft palate, Jarenz had undergone surgery for the first time when she was only two. 

Jarenz’s mother Merly said, “There is still a small opening on her palate … This is going to be her fourth operation if she passes the screening.” 

Jarenz is among thousands of Filipino children born with cleft palate and/or cleft lip problems, and she is not alone in dealing with all the challenges that come with it.  


Living with cleft palate or cleft lip problem 

At the Pagamutan ng Dasmarinas on Saturday, August 17, more than 100 parents queued for hours for a chance to help their children with cleft palate and/or cleft lip problems get free surgery thanks to Operation Smile Philippines (PH) and its partner donors.  

At the small covered court where parents waited for their turn to be called, their children ran around, so innocent of how important that day was. Every now and then they would come to their parents, asking for water amid the mid-day heat. To feed them or give them a drink takes a bit of skill.  

One mother said in Filipino, “My two-year-old has to sit up when we give him milk, or he will not be able to breathe. Sometimes when we forget and feed him when he’s lying down, he’ll suddenly get up and gasp for breath as if he’s drowning.” 

First-time parents play with their newborn as they wait to be called for free cleft-palate repair screening.

‘Tip of the iceberg’ 

According to Operation Smile PHI Executive Director Angel Mojica, an estimated 4,500 Filipino children or one in 500 live children suffer from cleft palate and/or cleft lip problems at the time of birth. 

Many of those affected come from poor communities, where proper nutrition and an ideal healthy environment for pregnant mothers are lacking.  

Since its establishment in 1982, Operation Smile PH has helped repair more than 40,000 cleft palate and/or cleft lip problems.  

But that is only the tip of the iceberg.  

Operation Smile PH Executive Director Angel Mojica says partner donors like Afni PH are welcome to help more children with cleft palate or cleft lip problem.

“Aside from children who are born with this condition yearly, we have the backlogs [in surgery],” said Mojica. “The backlog is probably around 18,000 to 20,000.”   

Backlogs include those patients who have post-surgery complications and those who were not granted surgery the first time they were screened.  

“Around 60 out of 100 patients are given the ‘green light’ for surgery,” Mojica explained. “There are several reasons why some don’t pass the screening. Some are too young, some are not in good health condition.”  

Many must wait a little longer before their surgery comes. And it can be a very painful time. 

Several studies show children with cleft palate and/or lip problem tend to have low self-esteem due to bullying and social isolation. 

But Operation Smile PH’s mission that weekend tried to ease that as partner donor Afni Philippines (PH) held a fun-filled program for parents and children alike.  


Sharing the ‘#AfniFamily’ love 

A volunteer from Afni PH talks to children at the mission.

Afni Inc’s charity arm, AfniCARES, regularly holds activities that allow employees to “listen to the challenges its neighbors face” and “make an impact.” 

For this quarter, AfniCARES in the Philippines, through Afni Gives Back (AGB), chose to help children in need and to collaborate with Operation Smile PH. Together, they worked on a weekend mission to provide a fun time for children and parents while they waited for screening. The Afni PH program was complete with games, the distribution of gift bags and refreshments being served to children and volunteers. 

An Afni PH volunteer bonds with one of the children.

Afni PH’s Human Resources Director Joyce Caseñas said it’s the company’s core value to provide an avenue for employees that help the most vulnerable populations. 

“About 78% of our employees in Afni Philippines are millennials and as millennials they have the drive and passion to feel relevant in the society,” Caseñas said. “They want to contribute.”   

“They see there’s value in what they do, so they contribute their time, money, effort,” Caseñas said. “I have all praises for them. They cme straight from their shift last night; most of them have not slept or eaten and yet they are here ready to lend a hand.

First-time volunteer Karen Diaz said, “It’s a privilege to give joy to these children. Nothing is better than seeing a person happy because of your help.”  

Another volunteer Oliver Tupaz said, “This may be a company-led initiative, but we’re not here just to work. We’re here to inspire other people to do the same.” 


Working together 

When it comes to future missions, Mojica said they would be much more meaningful if they could reach more children in need of cleft palate and/or cleft lip repair.  

“Our challenge is locating these children,” Mojica said. “We believe that it’s up to the local government units to report those children with this condition. With that data ready, it will be much easier for us to carry out missions.”  

Partner donors like Afni PH are also a big help in boosting the number of volunteers needed on site during missions as well as monetary contributions that sponsor surgeries, Mojica added. 

But perhaps the best support of all is the one coming from their families. 

Merly Lantayan Hernandez patiently waits in line with her daughter Jarenz for the latter’s fourth cleft-palate repair.
“The other kids would tease her for her condition,” Merly said. “But it didn’t bother us. I raised her to be confident no matter what.”  

“She’s mastered it so well it’s way too much sometimes,” Merly added and then burst out laughing. 

Jarenz responded with a big smile before she left to attend her screening.  


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