Julia de Ocampo received timely cleft palate surgery and follow-up speech therapy from medical professionals who devote their time and skill people who often face challenges when trying to access the same quality of care in their communities. Hoping to make her voice heard and raise awareness for these volunteers and children, Julia shared her story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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 didn't 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.
“I started working with Julia when she was around 4 or 5 years old,” said speech therapist Bal Ligot. “Even as a young girl, I remember she was very engaging, very responsive. She understood the concept and value of doing homework for speech.”
At this point in my life, I had my group of friends in school who I was genuinely comfortable with. I no longer hid behind my parents or cried every time they left.
However, I still wasn't 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, “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, cooking and baking.
“Her being confident, conscientious, and her willingness to improve paved the way for her progress in speech therapy,” Bal said. “Yes, I made the program specific to her needs, monitored her as she went through it, but that’s just the technical part. The work was all Julia’s.”
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.
Paying it Forward
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 in the Philippines, and the joy I felt when I helped a little girl waiting for her turn in the operating room was incomparable to anything I'd 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 condition 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's any less valid.
Very soon, I'll be opening a small home bakery business, called Flutter Bakery, where I'm proudly able to express myself through the baked goods that I'll be selling.
In order to help support Operation Smile’s mission of providing children with cleft lip and cleft 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.
“I'm glad to know that she is helping the organization,” Bal said. “I'd like to think that this gesture goes beyond just saying thank you to us, but that she understands what it feels to have this condition and that people can overcome it, like she did. More than anything else, I think this is her message.”
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.