Facts about Cleft Lip and Palate

Every 3 minutes, a child somewhere in the world is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate. A baby born with a cleft has twice the odds of dying before their first birthday.

Q. What is a cleft lip and cleft palate?

A. A cleft is an opening in the lip, the roof of the mouth or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. A cleft lip may be accompanied by an opening in the bones of the upper jaw and/or the upper gum. A cleft palate occurs when the two sides of a palate do not join together, resulting in an opening in the roof of the mouth. A cleft lip and palate can occur on one side or both sides. A child can suffer from a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both.

Q. What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?

A. The exact cause is unknown. Cleft lips and cleft palates are congenital defects that occur early in embryonic development. Scientists believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as maternal illness, drugs or malnutrition, may lead to a cleft lip or cleft palate. If one child in a family is born with a cleft, the risk increases by 2 to 4 percent that future children in the family will suffer from the same defect.

Q. Can cleft lip and cleft palate be prevented?

A, Scientists are researching methods to prevent cleft lip and cleft palate. One finding, according to research studies, is that mothers who take multivitamins containing folic acid before conception and during the first two months of pregnancy may reduce their risk of giving birth to a baby with a cleft condition.

Q. Does a cleft lip or cleft palate cause problems for a child?

A. Ear disease and dental problems occur frequently, as do problems with proper speech development. Children who suffer from a cleft lip and/or cleft palate may have difficulty eating. To address these issues, a child and family may work with a team of specialists — a pediatrician, a plastic surgeon, dental specialists, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist), a speech-language pathologist and audiologist, a geneticist and a psychologist/social worker.

Q. Can cleft lip and cleft palate be repaired?

A. Yes. Cleft lip and cleft palate surgery provides excellent results. A pediatrician and a plastic surgeon work with a child's parents to choose the best timing for surgery. Most surgeons agree that a cleft lip should be repaired by the time a baby is 3 months old. To repair the partition of mouth and nose as early as possible, a cleft palate generally is repaired between the ages of 12 and 18 months. Any surgical procedure is dependent upon a child's general health and the nature of the cleft lip or cleft palate.

Q. How frequently do cleft conditions occur?

A. One in 700 children globally is born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.

Operation Smile Medical Programs

Q. How does Operation Smile differ in their approach to treating children with cleft conditions around the world?

A. Operation Smile distinguishes itself by adhering to these core principles:

We Treat

For over 35 years, Operation Smile has become a pioneer in providing safe surgery in the developing world. Our more than 5,400 medical volunteers from 80 countries reach the children who are typically isolated and hidden away because of their deformities. Many of these children and their families have never even seen a doctor or healthcare worker. Our volunteers treat both the physical needs of these children, as well as their psychological and social needs. Knowing how important nutrition is, our programs also include essential nutrition education and interventions. Our medical teams are giving children the chance to lead healthy and productive lives far into the future.

We Train

Too many countries have only one or two medical professionals who are trained to perform specialized procedures like cleft surgery, leaving hundreds of thousands of children with no access to treatment. To help meet this need, we train local surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other essential medical professionals in resource-poor settings so they are empowered to treat their own communities year-round. Intensive, hands-on medical education programs such as our American Heart Association international life-support program and our Helping Babies Breathe® courses in neonatal resuscitation develop critical skills for in-country medical professionals. In addition to our surgical and life-saving programs, we also train local healthcare professionals and community health workers to address issues such as birth asphyxia which accounts for 23% of all neonatal deaths. In this way, Operation Smile is meeting a much larger global need by helping to prevent death and alleviate the global burden of surgical disease.

We Mobilize and Collaborate

To help build sustainability, Operation Smile has established global Foundations that build awareness, promote advocacy, raise funds, recruit local volunteers and organize local programs. To develop self-sufficient healthcare systems, we work with other organizations and invest resources in our partner communities including funds, staff and volunteers. We operate year-round centers worldwide so patients can be cared for year-round by multi-disciplinary medical teams who treat the related healthcare needs of the child. We also closely collaborate with local governments and ministries of health, as well as local hospitals and universities, to train medical professionals in each country, so that they can carry these programs far into the future.

We Invest

Operation Smile raises global awareness of cleft conditions and inspires action by empowering individuals, businesses, institutions and governments. To become a leading voice in the global health community in promoting increased access to quality surgical care, we rely on millions of generous hearts around the world to speak out, raise funds, educate others and volunteer. Operation Smile has helped foster a culture of volunteerism around the world through medical professionals, students and community volunteers. We believe this promotes cross-cultural understanding, sharing of ideas, best practices and medical diplomacy. Together we are breaking down geographic and cultural barriers so we can provide surgery for children in need.

We apply Global Standards of Care

We bring the highest quality of care to every child, every time. We were the first cleft organization to support the World Health Organization's "Safe Surgery Saves Lives" initiative. Our Global Standards of Care is our commitment to ensuring that every patient cared for by Operation Smile will benefit from the same sophisticated equipment, procedures and highly trained, credentialed medical professionals, no matter where they receive treatment.

Q. What does it cost to provide a surgery for a child with a cleft condition?

A. As little as $240 helps provide surgery to a child with a cleft condition. This is possible thanks to the generous contributions of medical professionals who volunteer their time, as well as corporations that donate critical supplies and equipment necessary for safe surgery. This cost includes expenses incurred for essential medical team members to be at an international surgical mission, the expenses for additional supplies required for the medical mission and cargo costs to help ship these critical supplies.

Q. Do all surgeries cost $240?

A. Some sites are more difficult to reach and lack essential medical resources and infrastructure. Examples of this are remote locations such as the Amazon region of South America, or in a country like Rwanda where there are very few specialized surgeons serving a population of 10 million people. These sites require Operation Smile to utilize its network of international medical volunteers for surgical missions due to the lack of local medical professionals. This ultimately can make providing free surgeries more costly. However, this cost is balanced out by many of our of partner countries like Panama and Vietnam where Operation Smile has worked for more than 20 years. Operation Smile is continuously building sustainable programs around the world by establishing a strong local medical infrastructure, building local partnerships, conducting ongoing medical training and education, and fostering volunteerism within local communities. As a result of these efforts, 67% of Operation Smile’s surgeries are performed by local medical professionals at a greatly reduced cost.

Treating Clefts in Canada

Q. Do you do any work in Canada to assist people born with cleft conditions?

A. No, we recommend you call your family doctor for recommendations on treating clefts in Canada These surgeries are usually covered under provincial health care plans for citizens and residents of Canada.

Q. I live in Canada. Why have I never seen a child with a cleft here?

A. Cleft conditions (orofacial defects) are a common birth defect in Canada. However, most clefts are repaired during early childhood. In other countries, reconstructive surgery often takes place later in life due to a variety of reasons including lack of medical care and financial resources. Higher rates of unrepaired clefts in older children may also be attributed to cultural differences.

Setting up Automatic Bank Withdrawal

If you wish to make your automatic bank withdrawal gift online, simply follow the steps on the main or monthly giving donation form and you're all set! Your gift will be processed as per your wishes.

If you wish to set up a recurring automatic bank withdrawal with Operation Smile Canada by phone or mail, please send a copy of a void cheque from the account you wish to have funds withdrawn from, and the form below (Download Automatic Bank Withdrawal Form) filled in with your information then sign and send the form below to our attention by email to or by mail to 375 University Ave, Suite 204, Toronto, ON M5G 2J5. Alternately, you can also call us at 647-696-0600 to discuss the process.

Download Automatic Bank Withdrawal Form

The legal stuff:

By authorizing your Pre-Authorized Debit (“PAD”) gift to Operation Smile Canada Foundation (“Operation Smile Canada”) either by telephone, web site or printed form, you, the donor, agree to the following terms and conditions:

I authorize Operation Smile Canada and the financial institution set out above to begin deductions for regular recurring payments and/or one-time payments from time to time on my above-noted Operation Smile Canada Account Number in the amount indicated below according to my instructions.

I may cancel my PAD gift authorization at any time, either by phone, fax, email or mail, but must give Operation Smile Canada up to 30 days to complete my cancellation request. Cancellation requests can often be done more quickly (i.e. often within 5 business days), but due to potential delays in mail delivery or office closures, Operation Smile Canada requires up to 30

days to ensure your request is completed.

I have certain rights of recourse if a PAD does not comply with the terms of this PAD agreement. For example, I have the right to receive reimbursement for any PAD that is not authorized or that is not compatible with the terms of this PAD Agreement. To obtain more information regarding my rights of recourse I may consult with my financial institution or visit I may also discuss the situation with a Donor Relations Associate from Operation Smile Canada. All contact details can be found on our website

By entering into a PAD agreement, I accept that the recurring amount withdrawn may change upon mutual agreement between myself and Operation Smile Canada and that Operation Smile Canada will provide a minimum of 10 days notice by mail, phone or email. In some provinces, the minimum notice period may be extended to account for local laws concerning PAD gifts. Entering into a PAD agreement implies knowledge and consent to this possibility. Operation Smile Canada will not be held liable if they are unable to reach me at the contact details provided. To prevent the above, I will keep Operation Smile Canada notified of any changes to my contact details.

I agree that Operation Smile Canada may reprocess any PADs returned for reason of non-sufficient funds one time only, within 30 days of the original attempt, not including any additional fees other than the original amount of the agreement.


Q . How can I support Operation Smile beyond just donating money?

A. You can help change a child's life by sharing your time, talent and resources as a medical or local community volunteer. We need your help to share our cause, complete smile service projects and raise funds — so that children across the globe can receive free, life-changing surgery from our Operation Smile medical volunteers. Here are a few ways you can become involved:

Q. I am a medical volunteer with Operation Smile who has already volunteered for medical missions. It was a wonderful experience for me and I hope to do many more in the future. What are you doing to improve the medical volunteer experience including better communication for mission selection and timing?

A. Operation Smile's Medical Volunteers Action Center (MVAC) gives volunteers a centralized place for credentialing, signing up for surgical missions, and for chronicling their mission experiences through the social-networking side of MVAC. We are very excited about this initiative as it is serving to improve the overall volunteer experience. Operation Smile is a constantly evolving organization so the needs of medical volunteers will evolve as well. We work daily to assist users and welcome any suggestions to improve the website. Please email our Volunteer Team at

Q. How can I get involved if I live outside of Canada?

A. You can help change a child's life by sharing your time, talent and resources no matter where you live. We need your help by volunteering with your closest Operation Smile Foundation to advocate for our cause, assist your local Foundation and raise funds — so that more children can receive free, life-changing surgery from our Operation Smile medical volunteers. These needs are determined and positions are filled through the Foundation in each country. A full list of Operation Smile Foundations is available on our website. Please contact the Foundation nearest you. If you are in Canada, please contact our Team at

Student Programs

Q. I am still in school. I would love to get involved with Operation Smile. Please tell me how I can help?

A. There are great opportunities for students of all grade levels — from elementary school through college. Operation Smile Student Programs empowers youth, creating a global movement for positive change through our four pillars of philanthropy: Leadership, Education, Service and Awareness.

More than 900 Operation Smile Student Clubs and associations around the globe build awareness, raise funds and educate students about our core values of commitment, leadership and volunteerism. When students help children in need, they learn firsthand how they can make an impact on the world and help heal humanity. To learn more, please visit our Student Programs page.

Donor Services

Q. It seems that the mailings I receive from Operation Smile may be costly. Why not use that money for the surgical programs and send me emails only?

A. Thank you for expressing your concerns about the cost of the mailings you have received. In fact, the cost can be as little as a postage stamp. We have found that corresponding with our donors through the mail is an effective way to reach a wide variety of people, educate them about our programs and increase donations so that Operation Smile can provide free surgery for even more children in need.

Q. I make a one-time gift each year. I would prefer to not receive any calls or mailings. How can I do this?

A. We will gladly meet your request and update your communication preferences. Our mailing schedule can be customized to meet your individual needs and you can let us know exactly how you wish to be contacted. Please call our Donor Relations team at (844) 376-4530 or email us at

Please note that due to our mail production schedule it may take up to 6-8 weeks for this request to take effect. In order to save on costs, we prepare and manage mailings up to 2 months in advance.

Q. I want a refund. How do I do that?

A. We sincerely thank donors for their charitable gifts. We are not able to process refunds unless there has been an error made in your gift (accidentally charged twice) or in extreme circumstances. If you donated through a credit card - it is best to contact your credit card company to dispute the charge who will follow up with us directly concerning any gifts. All other situations must be directed to our head office at 647-696-0600. Any and all refund requests must be made by the actual donor in question and not family or friends. We thank you for your understanding.

Q. I would prefer not to receive so many paper mailings — can I sign up for email correspondence instead?

A. We are happy to help you with your request and can assist you with updating your communication preferences. Please call our Donor Relations team at (844) 376-4530 or email us at

Q. I would like to upgrade or change my monthly Smile Partner donation. How do I make that change?

A. Thank you for your generosity and desire to help more children. If you currently receive our monthly statement in the mail, please contact our Donor Relations team for assistance with your donation at 647-696-0600 or (844) 376-4530.

Q. Can I restrict my donation to certain regions or countries?

We appreciate your interest in supporting specific programs and areas. To help the most children, we ask that you contribute unrestricted funding. While it is possible to have your gift directed toward a certain region or country where we are currently working, we may not have a current need in that area. By not restricting your contribution for a specific project, you will enable us to allocate our resources more efficiently and help children in areas where the need is greatest.

Q. It would be nice to know, for sure, exactly which child I helped. Is there any way I can stay in touch with the child I have assisted?

A. Operation Smile's goal is to provide life-changing surgery for children suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate in remote locations around the world. We have chosen to focus on the delivery of free surgery to children, rather than incurring the administrative costs of tracking and following individuals over an extended period of time. To receive treatment, children and families travel great distances to visit our medical mission sites and year-round centers. Our post-operative program goes to great lengths to check on the progress of children in the year following their surgery. It is during these visits that we are able to capture the photos and stories of how your donations have made a difference. We share these stories in as many ways as possible so that you can feel connected to the boys and girls whose lives have been transformed because you care. It is simply not cost effective for us to match specific donors with specific children. We are not and do not claim to be a sponsorship organization.

Q. Is Operation Smile a religious or faith-based organization?

A. Operation Smile is an international humanitarian medical charity, which provides services to children of all faiths. Our medical volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and personal beliefs.

Corporate Ambassadors

Q. How can my organization help support Operation Smile?

A. Operation Smile has partnered with leading corporations around the world and is ready to develop an integrated campaign that fits your business strategy. There are a myriad of ways to create a corporate partnership with us. We customize each unique partnership and strive for long-term relationships. Contact us today to learn more about how your company can benefit from a partnership with Operation Smile.

Q. How can my organization donate supplies to Operation Smile?

A. Operation Smile understands that donors are moved to help children worldwide suffering from cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities. You may seek to help through in-kind donations of medical supplies or other goods, but we urge you to contact us before gathering items or making plans for an in-kind donation. Often the supplies being offered are not needed on our missions or in our centres, so these gifts should always be discussed in advance.

For more information about in-kind contributions, please contact us.



“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder