Melony’s eyes welled up with tears up as she recalled the moment she first saw her baby girl’s cleft lip.
“I felt beaten. Then I cried,” she says, pausing for a long moment. “I can’t express myself.”
Little Maria Stephanie was born at home with the help of Melony’s mother and sister. The family had no money for an expensive hospital birth and, in the poor community where they lived, there was no one available to give Maria Stephanie medical care after she was born. No one could begin to explain why Maria Stephanie was born the way she was.
“This is what God gave us,” Melony says of her daughter.
But Melony was a very determined mother. She set out to educate herself and learn more about the cleft lip that afflicted her sweet little girl. She soon learned about Operation Smile, and when Maria was four months old Melony brought her daughter to an Operation Smile medical mission. They made it through the medical screening process and determined that Maria was just two months too young to receive safe surgery. Additionally, baby Maria had developed a harsh cough, making surgery too dangerous for her tiny body.
Eight months later, Melony brought her now year old child back to another medical mission. This time, Maria was denied yet again, “because she was too faint,” Melony says. The doctors worked with her to show her how to properly feed Maria so she’ll be at a healthy weight for surgery next time.
Feeling defeated yet again, Melony and Maria went back home. What could be worse than back-to-back failures to help this delicate and damaged little girl?
People called her a monster.
Living next door to Maria and the Rondina family was a woman, a mother herself, who went out of her way to teach her own children that Maria was a monster – as if the children needed any help in the art of being cruel.
“Gusing! Gusing!” They would scream at her, a derogatory term for cleft.
When Melony discovered what was happening, she confronted her neighbor face-to-face. “I fought for Maria, but I also cried.”
Melony won the battle, if not the war. “She has stopped because I fought her,” she says of her neighbor. “She has stopped teaching her children to tease. But they still do.”
Maria, too, has bravely held strong, even in circumstances that have driven many children with her condition to hide in the shadows and avoid contact with others. This year, at age six, she completed the first grade. “Maria always goes to school, even when schoolmates tease her,” Melony shares, proud of her daughter’s education.
But the two failed attempts to fix her lip, and the air of disappointment hangs over everyone in the family.
“Mama, my lip? When will I get operated on, Mama?” Maria asks.
Maria’s father delivers food on a rented motor tricycle. The tricycle costs 200 pesos a day to rent. So although he makes 500 a day, he only keeps 300 pesos. About seven dollars. The family cannot afford a permanent home, so for now, they live with Melony’s mother. Her voice gets quieter as Melony thinks about Maria. “We don’t want her life to be poor like her parents.”
But the idea of paying for a surgery, even one as important and as life changing as this, was simply not feasible for the family.
Then the news came once again. Operation Smile was returning to the Philippines with another medical mission in which children like Maria could get the help they need for free.
A friend gave the tenacious mom and daughter each a new set of clothes and some simple jewelry to wear when coming for surgery. Perhaps if the doctors saw how serious and deserving Maria was, perhaps this time she would be accepted.
The screening day arrived. Melony and Maria arrived early in the morning. But there were already 71 children ahead of her. All they could do was wait and hope. They had made it this far twice before. This time, Melony had been more careful that Maria was rested and had eaten. Today she was stronger. But was it enough?
So many children come and there is only so much time.
Melony knew that the slightest thing might be a reason to say “no.” Finally, at the end of the day, the surgery candidates were announced to a parking lot full of other mothers and other children, all in need of this gift. Would her number be called?
Maria was in. It felt like a miracle. Surely this, too ,is what “God gave us.” Melony stays focused on her mission, “I pray that Maria Stephanie will be healthy, that this operation will be safe.”
Still, Melony’s head fills with wonderful possibilities.
What would it be like for Maria when the true loveliness of her face was at last revealed? “When she comes home, the other children will be shy. Because she will be beautiful,” Melony says.
“When she grows up, she will not be ashamed of herself. And I will be proud. When she gets married, it will be a simple life but she will be happy.”
After a long, hard journey, this third time will change Maria Stephanie’s life. And Melony is quick to express her appreciation.
“A very, very big thank you to the people of Operation Smile,” she says. “God gave us people like you who will help children with cleft lips. You help many children. I thank you a lot."