Home OFFICIAL PARTNER COLUMNISTS Smile Train: How I turned my swimming miles into smiles

Smile Train: How I turned my swimming miles into smiles

Nathan Abbott was born with a severe bilateral cleft lip and palate. As a child, he had to undergo more than 20 surgeries and was bullied at school for the way that he looked, spoke and ate. Subsequently, he chose to leave and be homeschooled. 

Fast forward to today, 22-year-old Nathan has overcome many of his hardships by channelling his energy into sports, such as swimming. Through his passion for sports and the launch of his own fundraising movement, Freestyle4Smile, Nathan has dedicated much of his free time to raising awareness and vital funds for Smile Train, to help children with clefts around the world get the same treatment and care that he received.   

This month, Nathan decided to take his support for Smile Train one step further by jetting off to the Philippines and embarking on a ‘Journey of Smiles’ – a special programme created by Smile Train which allows people to visit our local programs in the field and see first-hand how we are changing the lives of children all over the world.

Here Nathan shares his experience.

“For the past six years, I have been fundraising for Smile Train. Over this time, I have become so emotionally connected to the incredible people that they support and had always hoped that I might have an opportunity to meet them one day. 

“This year I had my final surgery, which marked the end of my own ‘cleft journey’ – so joining Smile Train’s Journey of Smiles in the Philippines felt like perfect timing! 

“On the 2nd of November, I flew out to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where I was lucky enough to visit not just one, but two of Smile Train’s local partner hospitals – Band of Mercy and Our Lady of Peace. At these hospitals, I was able to witness the charity’s work first-hand, learn from their incredible local partner surgeons, meet with their young patients, and share my own personal story with their families.

“Having been very close to Smile Train for six years, I thought I knew everything there was to know about their work however, it was far more comprehensive than I initially believed. On top of the free cleft surgery they provide, I was amazed to see how seamlessly they work with other organisations to ensure their patients receive the best level of care in all areas of their health – from nutrition support pre-surgery to speech therapy after surgery, right through to finding jobs in adulthood.

“If I had to pick a ‘favourite moment’ of the journey, it would be my time spent meeting with families who had travelled from all areas of Manilla to make it to the hospital – and who had such incredible stories.

“There was also a baby boy called Nathan who was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate – just like me. Nathan was having his cleft repair treatment in a month’s time and his mum was very emotional. The surgery was a really big deal for her, given that the medical care in this region wasn’t fantastic. It made me stand back and think ‘that could’ve been me’ and ‘how my life would have been so different’.

“I also met Rizal, a 21-year-old man who was born with a full facial cleft, which had left him blind in one eye. After receiving free treatment from a Smile Train partner hospital, Rizal had overcome so many obstacles and channelled all his negative experiences into positives – again something that felt similar to my own story. He showed me some of the art he had created, and it was absolutely incredible.

“Little Yasie also really won me over with her beautiful personality, smiles and endless hugs – something I will never forget. I brought teddy bears with matching cleft stitches, which I gave out to cleft children in each place I visited. To see their faces light up to see a teddy bear-like them was the best feeling.

“I had no idea what to expect from my Journey of Smiles, but it is safe to say that my expectations were exceeded. It was the most life-changing week of my life, and I highly recommend it to everyone.”

Smile Train has programmes in more than 90 countries around the world and has been actively supporting programmes in the Philippines since 2002. In that time, the organization has developed local partnerships at 135 partner hospitals across the 7,000+ islands and supported more than 60,000+ free, high-quality cleft surgeries.

For more information about Smile Train and our Journey of Smiles programme, please visit: smiletrain.org.uk