In 2014, Soledad Gallardo of Santa Barbara, Chile was very surprised when her daughter Matilda was born with a cleft lip. Soledad was aware that cleft surgery was possible because she was a special needs teacher and she had taught students born with clefts. Even still, it was difficult for Soledad to come to terms with Matilda having to endure surgery for her cleft. "Matilda’s cleft lip was hard to accept. I help children with difficulties for a living, this happens to other people — not me," Soledad said.
During Matilda’s first months, Soledad would cover her with a blanket every time they went out in public, as she had grown tired of strangers coming up to her, asking rude questions and "whispering" their theories on what Soledad must have done wrong to deserve a child born with a cleft. Even more upsetting, were the members of Soledad’s family who blamed her for Matilda’s cleft lip. "All of the negativity sunk in and I began believing them – if everyone felt I was to blame, maybe they were right."
Things changed for the positive when Matilda was two months old and a family friend referred Soledad to Smile Train local partner Fundación Gantz, in Santiago. Soledad recalled the first visit for a consultation, "It felt like I was in a whole new world at Fundación Gantz. Instead of being stared at or discriminated against, Matilda was accepted and supported. The doctors gave us all the information we needed and made it perfectly clear that Matilda’s cleft wasn’t my fault."
After the family’s visit to Fundación Gantz, Soledad started going on walks with Matilda without a blanket covering her. "Matilda taught us how to deal with the gawkers – she would stare right back at anyone staring at us with her big beautiful eyes and she’d smile at them," said Soledad. Soledad also removed the family members who wanted to blame her for Matilda’s cleft lip from her life. The negativity, resentment, and stress she had been holding melted away.
When Matilda was four months old, she had her Smile Train sponsored cleft surgery, and Soledad was the first person to see her when she awoke. “I felt blessed that I was chosen to be Matilda’s mother — she looked amazing and I fell in love with her all over again,” Soledad recalled.
After Matilda’s cleft surgery, Soledad decided to write a book about the unique experience of being a mother of a child born with a cleft — something she wished she had read in her first months with Matilda. “I was proud of my story and I believed it could help other mothers,” she said.
Soledad had no previous writing experience, so she asked some friends for help. Amazingly, when the book was finished, Santa Barbara’s mayor learned of the project and he connected Soledad with private funding, and she was able to publish her book which translates to Your Smile Illuminates the World: A Rehabilitation to Learn to Smile and See with the Heart. Today, the book is sold in the Fundación Gantz’s gift shop and other bookstores around Chile.
“I’m so grateful to Smile Train and Fundación Gantz for being supportive. I hope that my book will send more cleft mothers in Chile to your wonderful program – I know it changed my life,” says Soledad. Soledad reports that Matilda is doing really well, “Matilda is a little hurricane. She’s very active and extroverted – she’s always running around. She is what I dreamed of – happy and healthy.”