Karla Rico is the new Program Manager at Smile Train Mexico, where she is responsible for maintaining, growing and improving our programmes in the region. She recently chatted with us about how she got to Smile Train, the challenges of providing cleft care in Mexico, her favourite memories so and much more.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to Smile Train.
I am a dedicated and persistent woman. I come from a family that has forged its lifestyle by constant effort, tireless work, and a lot of coastal humour (from the coast of Veracruz, Mexico). One of the phrases that I live by is Charlie Chaplin's principle: "A day without laughter is like a day wasted." I firmly believe that seeking excellence is better than seeking perfection; excellence for me means doing things well, being persistent both in dreams and in the real world, and taking care of the mind, body, and spirit. That prepares me to make decisions more easily or even totally change course. This is how I got to know Smile Train: Perseverance led me to dream doing more, and I created a small communications consulting firm. With effort and passion, I was able to co-create the first National Cleft Lip and Palate Day in Mexico for Smile Train in 2016, where Smile Train partners throughout Mexico got together and formed giant smiles at one of the largest monuments and in one of the largest forests in Latin America. That’s how my love for Smile Train and its philosophy — one that resonates with my own philosophy of life — was born. Years later, fate called me to be part of the cause, and here I am.
What motivates you to work each day with children with clefts and their families?
I really enjoy getting to know families; when they tell you their history, you become part of it. But, mainly, it fills my soul to see children smiling before or after surgery. It fills me with a lot of energy and is the fuel that keeps me going, because I just cannot countenance that there continues to be so much stigma and discrimination against helpless human beings who have everything they need inside to be what they want to be.
What challenges came with starting a new project in the midst of a global pandemic?
I firmly believe that there are two ways of seeing this pandemic: one of learning and introspection, and one of indifference and ignorance. Although I had no plans to start a new project at this time, I couldn’t ignore God’s call to help. The biggest challenge is being unable to be in-person with the children, their families, and our beloved partners, but I strongly believe that creativity can break down walls.
What does Smile Train’s "Teach a man to fish" philosophy mean to you and your work?
I identify 100% with this philosophy and I would add: we should also encourage him to fly. Dependence is not something that helps anyone grow. Although sometimes we will be the one who teaches while others learn, we must never lose our capacity for wonder and gratitude. These qualities are what make the most daring solutions — or, in this case, the most amazing results in the lives of children and their families — possible.
What do you tell families who recently found out that their newborn baby has a cleft?
Communicate heart to heart with your baby. This reassures you both that everything will be fine and that Smile Train will be there to help you. I wish we could reach every baby born with a cleft, but until that happens, we have to keep our faith in the angels that God sent to earth dressed in white coats.
What makes you smile about your work?
Sharing experiences with my team and planning wonderful things to improve the quality of children's lives. But the thing that makes me smile the widest is when I see in the eyes of our partner health professionals and those who run cleft centres how their souls and hearts are genuinely moved to give back, whether because of their own life experiences or simply because their heart moves them.
What would you like to accomplish to help create smiles?
I would like to help build a world where each child born with a cleft is cared for from the moment they are born until they are fully integrated into social life. I would also like to continue fighting against stigma and building a culture of respect for people who are different.
Tell us a funny storey from your first few days at Smile Train.
Soon after starting here, I met Josué, a little boy from Guanajuato who had cleft surgery and, fortunately, was making great strides in his speech therapy. Part of my first project with Smile Train was to carry an awareness message to the media in Mexico City, and Josué was in high demand from people in radio because of how well he could speak. I remember that in one of the interviews with a keynote speaker, he simply refused to speak, even though his mother, Martha, was with him the whole time. But he refused to talk and there was not enough human strength in the world to get a word out of his mouth. It lowered that show’s ratings, but we had a lot of fun during the media tour.