Dr. Vicki Belo hopes to make a difference in the lives of children with facial deformities by repairing cleft lips and cleft palates
Dr. Vicki Belo was smiling through her tears as children came one by one to offer her long stemmed roses. She had met them when their faces were marred by orofacial cleft, a birth disorder that disfigured the mouth. Together with her team of doctors, the dermatologist performed surgical procedures to correct their cleft lip and cleft palate and help build their self-esteem. They had returned to thank her and the Belo Smiles team for setting them on the road to their dreams.
Twisted Mouths, Wounded Lives
The owner, CEO and founder of the Belo Medical Group had been building houses for marginalized communities as part of her philanthropic bent. She worked with Gawad Kalinga and Habitat for Humanity before she was drawn to helping children who were born with an opening in the upper lip that extended to the nose or the roof of the mouth opened to the nose. “I felt this was something I wanted to do. It was within our expertise,” she said. “Also, I have a soft spot for children.”
A collaboration with Operation Smiles Philippines widened her reach. “I met Dee Zobel, who was the vice-chairman of Operation Smiles Philippines,” she said during the exhibit opening of Belo Smiles at the Fashion Forum. The exhibit showed photographs of the children before the surgery and their smiling faces after the procedure. Availing of the hospital facilities available to Operation Smiles, Belo Smiles has been able to help more than 150 children since 2011.
Dr. Belo shared that her desire to help others become beautiful began when she five-years-old, an adopted child who was bullied and taunted for being given away by her natural parents. She felt ugly and decided at that early age that she would help others who felt similarly. Throughout the practice of her profession, she has repeatedly expressed her desire to help people feel good about themselves by improving their appearance.
“It has been my vision to help change the lives of people and with Belo Smiles, I am able to help these kids have a brighter future filled with more confidence,” she said. “These kids, they get bullied because of their difference. There is a psychosocial impact on them. It affects their self-esteem, the way they interact with people even their outlook in life. Imagine, we have the highest case of cleft lip and palate in Asia. 4,500 kids per year are born with it and I think we still have a long way to go. I wanted to reach more children that is why last year, we partnered with Operation Smiles.”
Hiding Behind a Mask
During the opening of the Belo Smiles exhibit, the children beneficiaries were dressed as the professionals they aspired to be. There were future firemen, policemen and teachers. Two boys wore toques, hoping to someday become chefs. The children were accompanied by their grateful families who said that they would never have been able to give their sons and daughters the chance for normalcy, not having the means for an operation.
Cristalle Belo Pitt, daughter of Dr. Vicki, who is also involved in Belo Smiles, shared about visiting the children in their homes, listening to their stories and feeling their pain. “One child had to wear a mask whenever he went out because he was always being made fun of. “ she narrated. After he had undergone the operation to correct his cleft palate, there was a marked change as he became confident and happy. “Their smile mean’s the world to me,” Dr. Vicki said. “As someone who was bullied before, I understand the plight of children who are born different, who were treated different.”
Let The Children Come
Dr. Belo and her team of medical volunteers, including Dr. Sheila Acosta and surgeons Dr. Jun Caparas and Dr. BG Alcantara hope to bring the Belo Smiles to rural areas with the help of Operation Smiles. “We want to spread more awareness to this cause,” Cristalle said. “We would also like the families of children with cleft lip and palate to know that there is help available for them. That is why we will be running this exhibit on different locations.”
The Belo Smiles exhibit will run on March 14-18 at SM Mega Fashion Hall, March 23-25 SM Mall of Asia, April 6-8 at SM Aura Premier ad April 27-29 at SM North EDSA. Indeed, Belo has gone the extra smile to help make a difference in their lives.
by Anna Isabel C. Sobrepeña