In Denmark, in 2009, Gitte Warming and her husband Svend Stenberg Mølholt were surprised when, during an ultrasound, they learned that their son would be born with a cleft lip and palate. Thankfully, the knowledgeable hospital staff walked them through what to expect, and the advance notice gave Svend and Gitte time to learn more about clefts.
During their cleft research, they learned that Denmark had world-class cleft specialists and programs which would ensure their child would get the best possible start. Charlie was born and went on to have a successful cleft lip surgery. Charlie was doing so well, in fact, Svend and his family accepted the offer to move to Chengdu, China as part of his work for the global oil shipping company Maersk.
During the family’s stay in China, they noticed that cleft-awareness and resources available for children born with clefts were not the same as in Denmark. When Gitte and Svend researched the disparity, they came across Smile Train’s website and read stories about children, outside of Denmark, who needlessly struggled with stigma and discrimination. Gitte and Svend still remember feeling guilty about the inequity of what a cleft birth meant for their son, as compared to other areas of the world. “While we obviously had our worries, we always felt like we were in good hands with our medical team in Denmark. Reading those stories made us a Smile Train family – we believe, as they do, that every child deserves a smile and equal, top-notch, cleft treatment.”
When Charlie was a year old, the family went back to Demark for his cleft palate surgery. During that visit, Gitte and Svend met a family that had adopted a child in China who had been born with a cleft, and the family’s story sparked an interest in Gitte and Svend to do the same. They thought that, with their knowledge about clefts, they were uniquely suited to give a child the needed love and support.
During the process with an adoption agency, Gitte and Svend met a child born with a cleft, Anna Lu, at first through mail correspondence and then by telephone. Through this correspondence, they learned that Anna Lu had received a free cleft lip surgery but was still living with an untreated cleft palate. When the time finally came to meet Anna Lu in person, they were smitten, and there was no doubt in their minds that they would now become a happy family of four.
Anna Lu came home to the Stenberg-Warming family in 2017 and started learning her family’s Danish language. Svend says that Anna Lu is courageous in the language-learning process: “She is in no way discouraged from speaking Danish. When we don’t understand her, she works around it with a smile on her face.” The family is excited that her upcoming cleft palate surgery will help Anna Lu to pronounce all the nuances of the Danish language.
Anna Lu’s arrival coincided with the official partnership of Svend’s company, Monjasa, with Smile Train, which supports cleft treatment in Panama. Svend explained how the two organisations were a match: “Like Smile Train, it has always been important for Monjasa to support the local communities in which we work. We look to support people whose starting point to life is different from ours, and the children Smile Train supports are a perfect example of this.”
As a special appreciation for the hospital in China that gave Anna Lu her free cleft lip surgery, Gitte and Svend made a personal donation to help provide a smile a week for an entire year, to Smile Train’s local partner, Jinzhong No. 1 People’s Hospital. In a note to the hospital, they wrote, “Thank you all for your efforts in putting even more smiles on the faces of many children and their loved ones around them. Your contributions to untreated clefts are admirable, and our family has been blessed by your work — we are so very thankful.”
Now, as a family with two children born with clefts, Gitte and Svend have some advice for other parents who learn that their child will be born with a cleft, just as they did a few short years ago.
Being born with a cleft shouldn’t define your child — they are not a cleft child. Their personality, determination, and perseverance will define them. Act as their advocate and educate people around them about what a cleft is and how it can impact eating and speaking abilities, so that they are not looked down on in any way and are supported by the communities they engage in.
Smile Train sends our gratitude to Gitte and Svend for all that they’ve done as cleft advocates and dedicated Smile Train supporters. We are so pleased that they, and the Monjasa organisation, are helping us change the world one smile at a time.
If you would like to join Monjasa in helping to support forever smiles for children living with untreated clefts, donate today. You can also visit our Corporate Partnerships page to learn how to get more involved.