In addition to finding his forever home in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, 15-year-old Willy Sikora discovered a community of people who encourage him to share his story.
Willy enjoys spending his time devoted to his many interests, including riding his bike, playing the violin and skiing. However, if it weren’t for a series of events that propelled his journey from China to the U.S., Willy’s day-to-day might have looked a little different.
Willy was born with a cleft lip and palate. He was also born when China’s one-child policy, rescinded in 2016, was still in effect.
Infants born with cleft conditions often experience feeding challenges, which means they’re at a higher risk of becoming malnourished. Willy was no exception.
His birth mother tried to feed him, but with the severity of his cleft condition, Willy aspirated her milk. It wasn’t long before Willy’s health became dire. After witnessing their son develop life-threatening pneumonia, Willy’s birth parents admitted him to the local children’s hospital in China. This would be their final act as parents.
“I was in the hospital with pneumonia,” Willy said. “Last thing I know that happened to them, they disappeared.”
Living in a society where resources were limited and parents were fined for having additional children, it wasn’t uncommon for families to abandon their second child or attempt to put them up for adoption if the child was born with a mental or physical health condition.
While in the hospital, Willy fought and overcame his bout with pneumonia and proceeded to spend his first few months of life in an orphanage. During this time, Chinese orphanages became increasingly overpopulated and struggled to meet the demands. Willy’s orphanage alone housed 600 children.
In reaction to the effects of the one-child policy, families all around the world sought adoption, hoping to give those children happier and more loving homes.
Patti Braceland-Sikora and her husband, John, were one such family. Eager to expand their family and after months of going through the adoption process, John and Patti received a phone call while on vacation that changed the rest of their lives.
Deciding to adopt a child with a life-long health challenge is not a decision they took lightly. But that call could not have come to a more capable set of parents. As an orofacial myologist, Patti specializes in treating conditions related to the muscles and function of the face and mouth. In her work, she has cared for many children who are born with cleft conditions.
At 13 months old, Willy had his first operation on his cleft palate, which had progressed significantly since his adoption. This would be the first of many surgeries Willy would undergo throughout his life. John and Patti recognized that treating a child with a cleft condition is a completely different experience than raising a child with a cleft condition. But with the love they felt for their son, they refused to let anything stand in their way of giving Willy the happy and healthy life he always deserved.
“I wanted everyone to get to know him the way he was – it was actually difficult to go through the surgeries,” Patti said. “I loved his smile just the way it was.”
One might assume that someone who had overcome the challenges that Willy faced would try to avoid opportunities to relive those moments.
But Willy is different.
With a caring heart and passion for helping others, Willy got involved with Operation Smile.
Known for fostering unity in every community it reaches, Operation Smile Student Programs established Cleft Connect, a virtual outlet for people like Willy to build friendships, share their cleft care journeys and engage in conversation with other young adults born with cleft conditions.
“It’s been nice to be able to branch out and talk to people with similar issues. I’ve really enjoyed being able to talk to them,” Willy said. “And some of the adults who come on have really been helpful. It’s nice to know that they also know what we’ve been through. They have a level of understanding that not many other people have.”
In 2022, Willy attended Operation Smile’s annual International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC). The gathering was an emotional experience for all in attendance due to it being the first in-person ISLC since the onset of the pandemic.
But the conference was especially memorable for Willy. In addition to getting the opportunity to meet members of Cleft Connect in person for the first time, he met five other students with cleft conditions who’d also been adopted from China.
For Willy, ISLC reinvigorated his dedication to Operation Smile, and in the fall, he celebrated the organization’s 40th anniversary by raising money for the first Colorado Cycle for Smiles event held in Basalt, Colorado. Willy was named a ride ambassador for the event and fulfilled his role by helping promote the event, raise funds for the organization and give a motivational speech to riders before the ride began.
“Every little thing you do is making a difference,” Willy said. “Even if you don’t immediately, like with Cycle for Smiles, when you make a little donation, you are making a difference for someone out there.”
Willy’s journey is as impressive as it is inspiring. It’s not only a testament to his strength as a person, but to the positive impact a loving and supportive family can make.
“After surgery, to be able to come back and get back to normal and doing what you used to and pursuing what you want to do,” Willy said, “It’s a lot of perseverance and determination.”
To learn more about Willy’s story, check out this article by the Post Independent. It dives deeper into Willy’s childhood and his adoptive parents’ commitment to providing him with the life he always deserved.
Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep families safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence.