Sixteen-year-old Divya cannot stop talking about how her mother has been her pillar of strength.

A Bharatnatyam dancer, who topped the competition in Kanyakumari district and participated in a national level competition, she explains her mother’s extraordinary role in her life.

“When I was born with a cleft, my father left and had a second marriage,” she says, with a maturity that belies her age. From there on, it was her mother and maternal grandfather who stood by her, as she went through multiple surgeries to set right the cleft condition and find her feet in dancing.

Divya says with pride that people who had abandoned her family now come to them after seeing her perform on television. But life is still tough, she says, after her grandfather passed away but Divya soldiers on with her mother and younger brother.

Stepping in at the right time to set right the cleft condition was “Smile Train”, a cleft lip and palate charity focused on conducting these surgeries across the world. They train and fund doctors to do these surgeries free, so children like Divya are able to look forward to a normal life, without the isolation and ridicule some are subjected to because of the condition.

Despite India being its largest programme, Mamtaa Carrol, Smile Train’s Senior Vice-President says there still are under-served pockets because of lack of awareness. The reason for a cleft lip is not known, but all it takes are a few medical interventions and the person gets back much more in terms of a productive life, she explains.

Studies claim that for a $250 support towards a cleft lip surgery, the economic return is about 200 times that, she says. Presently, about 4,50,000 procedures have been done in India through local doctors and hospitals. Close to a million children in India are estimated to suffer from this condition.

Every year, one in 700 live births suffers from a cleft lip condition, according to Smile Train, which became popular globally following the Oscar-award winning documentary Smile Pinky . The charity has done about a million surgeries across 80 countries.

Chennai-based Indumathy, who has just completed her 12th standard, went through her first surgery when she was six months old. And though she has two more procedures to go through, the brave young girl says her parents who were initially worried are now happy to see her grow in confidence.

Also from a modest economic background, Indumathy scored over 91 per cent in her 10th standard and aspires to be an engineer. And like Divya, she too loves to dance and sing. Divya is clear she wants to be a doctor, for a reason that’s close to her heart. To help children born with a cleft lip, she says, so they too can smile like her.

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