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A young woman holding a picture of her younger self with a cleft lip stands among medical professionals

In the arid landscape of Ceará, northern Brazil, Antonia sat with her father, Iranildo, and sister, Samily, enjoying a rare moment of respite at the local coconut stand. Despite the cool drink in her hand, the unrelenting drought that had gripped the region for over five years weighed heavily on her mind, as did the swirling dust that blanketed everything in sight.

This region of Brazil, known more for its lush rainforests and the mighty Amazon River, was a stark contrast to the bustling cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. For Iranildo and other local farmers, life was a constant struggle. The drought had reduced his once productive fields to barren land, leaving him barely able to grow enough to feed his family. Even in better times, selling surplus corn, beans, and cassava brought in a meager and unreliable income.

Yet, amidst these challenges, there was a rare moment of joy and laughter as the family reminisced. Antonia’s husband, Alan, who worked at the coconut stand, exchanged a loving smile with her, a smile that had once seemed impossible.

Two young women and their father pose for the camera

Eleven years earlier, Antonia’s cleft lip had been repaired by Operation Smile Brazil. Her family had a long history of cleft conditions, with Antonia being the fifth generation affected. When she was born, her parents, Iranildo and Antonia, were heartbroken to see their fifth daughter with a cleft lip. Despite their sorrow, their love for her was boundless. Thankfully, Antonia could breastfeed without difficulty, but the cost of surgery was far beyond their means.

Operation Smile Brazil’s inaugural program in Fortaleza offered hope, but the family couldn’t afford the bus fare or the time away from the farm. All Iranildo could offer was a heartfelt promise to his daughter: “I promise I will get it fixed.”

As Antonia grew, her physical health remained strong, but the emotional toll of her condition was severe. At school, she faced relentless bullying and often came home in tears, pleading with her mother to let her stay home. The cruel taunts of her classmates were too much to bear.

A young girl with a cleft lip looks into the camera
Young Antonia’s cleft lip went untreated well into her school years, making bullying and teasing a sad reality.

When Antonia was eight, her aunt Leidinha persuaded Iranildo to take Antonia to Fortaleza for free surgery with Operation Smile Brazil. To Antonia, her aunt was nothing short of an angel.

Despite her fears of traveling without her mother, Antonia bravely endured the three-hour bus ride with her father and aunt. At the hospital, she played with other children waiting for surgery, many of whom, like her, had never seen another person with a cleft condition. They found solace in each other’s presence, realizing they were not alone.

After a thorough health evaluation, the medical team determined Antonia was ready for surgery. For Iranildo, the day he had long hoped for had finally arrived. Though Antonia cried as she was taken into the operating room, not understanding why her father couldn’t accompany her, he reassured her that he and Leidinha would be there when she woke up.

Seeing his daughter after surgery, Iranildo was overwhelmed with emotion. “Antonia was the most beautiful child in the world,” he said. Antonia awoke to find her lip sore but different, and all she wanted was to return home to her mother’s embrace. Her mother’s tears of joy upon seeing her new smile were unforgettable.

A young teenage girl smiles brightly while sitting on the edge of a wall.
Young Antonia shines brightly from the inside out.

Antonia stayed home until her lip fully healed before returning to school. The day she rejoined her classmates, her teacher gathered them and proudly showed off Antonia’s new smile. “Have you seen Antonia? Look at her now – she has had surgery and see how beautiful she is,” the teacher said, emphasizing that Antonia had always been beautiful and that any of them could have been born with a cleft lip.

From that day forward, the bullying stopped. Antonia made new friends and began to enjoy her social life and studies.

Her stunning transformation caught the attention of a famous toothpaste brand, and Antonia, once tormented by her peers, became the face of a national advertising campaign.

Years later, Antonia returned to an Operation Smile Brazil program in Fortaleza, where she shared her story with other families and children, hoping to ease their fears about surgery. Showing them a photo of her pre-surgery smile, she stood as living proof of the organization’s life-changing work.

A young woman shows a picture of her younger self with a cleft lip to a patient.

Reflecting on her journey, Antonia said, “If it was not for Operation Smile, I wouldn’t be here telling my story.” Her dream is to become a doctor or nurse to help children like herself, bringing smiles and hope to those in need. “Thank you for bringing back my happiness.”

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