The annual Smile Train Christmas Carol Concert at the historic Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair, London, is perhaps one of Smile Train UK’s most cherished traditions. Each year, our staff eagerly awaits the night we sit together with supporters from all over the country to take in the sounds of the season from the world-class Choir of The Grosvenor Chapel and hear some inspirational words from Priest-In-Charge, the Reverend Dr Richard Fermer, all while raising money to help children with clefts all over the world.
When it became clear that the traditional concert wouldn’t be possible this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Smile Train UK saw an opportunity to make it even better. This year, we could bring the concert to supporters across the world and invite some very special singers who would otherwise not have been able to attend. The vision came to fruition in a unique and unforgettable Giving Tuesday event — the first-ever Smile Train Christmas Carol Concert: A Virtual Celebration.
The livestream started off with a rousing rendition of the classic “Once in Royal David’s City” by the Choir of the Grosvenor Chapel, followed by a welcome from the director of Smile Train UK, Ian Vallance, who reminded the global audience why they were there: To create Christmas miracles for children in need around the world. “While the festive season might be a little different for many of us this year, there’s still so much to be thankful for,” he noted, including this: That though another baby is born with a cleft somewhere in the world every three minutes, and the pandemic has created a global backlog of thousands of children in need of life-saving cleft care, Smile Train has been able to recommence safely sponsoring cleft surgeries in more than 55 countries. And not only that, our unique model of partnering with and empowering local healthcare workers has made it possible to quickly expand telehealth programmes, distribute personal protective equipment to hospitals in need around the world, and provide partners with the crucial supplies they need to ensure patients and staff are kept safe and healthy, all thanks to the unwavering support of our donors.
Once Ian finished his address, the Choir sang “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”, before we were treated to a special guest appearance from Smile Train Ambassadors Richard and Sooty. Sooty was so inspired by the carollers that he offered to act out “Silent Night”!
Next came the first of four performances from choirs made up entirely of children with clefts who are receiving Smile Train-sponsored post-operative speech therapy from some of our partners in Latin America. First up was Choir Fundación Fábrica de Sonrisas from our partner CRILAP in Barranquilla, Colombia, singing “Ven a Cantar” (“Come to Sing”) under the direction of Julio Atencio.
Inspired by these children, Father Richard Fermer then gave his annual address to Smile Train. He began by noting how no one can see you smiling when you’re wearing a mask then asked, “When no one can see you smiling, how can we express our joy, our gratitude, and our love?” With that thought in mind, he shared a prayer for a world in which everyone can smile and have good reason to smile.
Following Father Richard, the Choir sang “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” before a special guest appearance from award-winning percussionist Toril Azzalini-Machecler, who played his gorgeous arrangement of Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum” for the marimba.
We next met Matilda Lansdown, a make-up artist and Smile Train Ambassador, who shared her inspirational story with us:
“I was born with a cleft lip and palate in the UK so I benefitted from our free and amazing NHS healthcare system. A lot of countries around the world do not have the same opportunity or access to the same healthcare as we do, and I love Smile Train’s model of focusing on education and empowerment with on-the-ground teams in those local areas. I know first-hand from visiting [Smile Train’s partners in] Ethiopia how important and invaluable this model has been. Smile Train has also… given me a platform to be able to become a role model and someone I think I needed when I was growing up. If you can help me help Smile Train today by giving as much or as little as possible, I promise we can change the world one smile at a time.”
As the audience at home wiped away tears, The Choir of the Grosvenor Chapel sang “Good King Wenceslas” before the program segued to a performance from the newest choir in Smile Train’s family, that of our partner Fundación Gantz just outside of Santiago, Chile, founded this October under the direction of Santiago Retti. They delighted us with their rendition of “Rodolfo El Reno” (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).
The theme of the night was truly that there’s nothing people with clefts cannot achieve given the opportunity. That was made crystal clear by the children in the cleft choirs as much as by our Smile Train Ambassadors, like the remarkable woman next on the programme, Jen Cross. Born with a cleft, she now has a young son with a cleft and runs the website dontgetlippy.co.uk, a one-stop shop featuring everything from cleft-proud gifts, to advocacy resources, to emotional support for the cleft community. She, too, honoured us with her story:
“In 1987… I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. In 2018, I had my son, Will, who was also born with the same condition…. Now, Will and I are actually no different than the patients that Smile Train finds and supports… the main difference… is that our health needs and support is at our fingertips. The fact that Smile Train goes out and finds people like me and Will in developing countries and makes them aware of what is accessible to them and without fear, without judgement is so, so important and I’m so pleased to be part of Smile Train’s Ambassador team.”
Already soaring, we were lifted further by the sounds of The Choir of the Grosvenor Chapel singing “The Truth Sent From Above”, then spirited away to Nairobi, where Smile Train’s Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, Dr Esther Njoroge, shared an update from her region. She was extremely pleased to report that, thanks to the incredible dedication and generosity of Smile Train’s donors, our local partners in her region have recently been able to safely resume performing cleft surgeries and other treatments at the same pace as before COVID-19. Yet she warned that this crisis is far from over and there is still so much more work to do. Medical partners across the continent remain on standby for COVID response, should they be needed again. And because there are still thousands of children in Africa who now must wait through a backlog to receive care, Dr Esther urged everyone watching to make a special Giving Tuesday gift to Smile Train to help ensure no child is left without the treatment they need to eat, breathe, speak, and go to school without fear.
The life-changing power and necessity of quality, holistic cleft care was again made plain immediately following Dr Esther’s update by a moving performance by Choir FISULAB from our partner of that name in Bogotá, Colombia. They treated us to a performance of “Montaje Navidad” (“Christmas Montage”) under the direction of Leidy Katherine Montilla.
After a quick trip back to Grosvenor to hear the Choir sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we were whisked off to Brazil to hear the choir from our partner Saúde Crianca Ilha – Repensar in Rio de Janeiro sing the songs “Natal Menino” (“Christmas Boy”) and “Feliz Natal” (“Happy Christmas”) under the direction of Marcia Guapyassú.
The evening concluded with Toril Azzalini-Machecler again dazzling us on the marimba with his adaptation of the Preludium from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 followed by The Choir of the Grosvenor Chapel singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It was a most fitting close to an evening where we truly did harken to angels — the Smile Train Ambassadors who advocate tirelessly those affected by clefts. The medical partners around the globe who transform and even save children’s lives around the world each day. And the voices of just a few dozen of the more than 1.5 million children around the world given song and wings by their angels here in the UK and around the world who dared to believe in them.
Be an angel for a child in desperate need this holiday season like no other. Make a special Christmas gift to Smile Train now.