It’s evening on sandy bank along the Columbia river just west of Vancouver, Washington. As the sun glistens of the water, a small group of children play at the water’s edge under the watchful eyes of their parents. These children have two things in common. They were all born with some kind of cleft (lip and/or palate), and they are all beautiful.
We drove up to Vancouver from Eugene, Oregon, that day on about 24 hours notice. Smile Oregon, a local charity founded in 2008 to assist families of cleft children organized a photo session with a Vancouver-based professional photographer who donated his time to the cause. Smile Oregon gathered kids of various ages—three months to seven years—to be poster children for the benefit of their fellow cleft kids throughout the state.
How did we come to be involved with this shoot?
A simple answer: Anna is a natural model. She was our “spokesmodel” in 2007 when we raised over $2000 to buy cleft bears for area families, and she is as much a ham today as she was when she crawled all over a TV studio at 19 months of age.
She proved that at her most recent appointment at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. We had her in that day to re-establish care after a four-year absence in anticipation of her next surgery in two to three years. Her surgeon—who serves on Smile Oregon’s board of directors—brought a few of her colleagues with her to Anna’s appointment. Anna was the center of attention, which she loves, and she laughed and smiled through the whole visit. I am certain that her surgeon recommended her after that appointment: maybe later that same day.
So we follow the directions, driving as far as the road will take us, and then trudge through loose sand for the last quarter-mile to find the spot. It’s a hot July day and there’s little shade, but the kids don’t care: they’re having way too much. The only concern is sunburn, and we’ve brought along a big bottle of sunscreen to share.
Despite the heat, the kids have a blast playing in the water and the wet sand. The best part for us that day: we met one of the families that got a free cleft bear from Doernbecher. Hearing how much that bear has come to mean to a four year old boy who went through the same surgery Anna did makes the hike and the heat worth it.
The other great part: after the photographer posts some of his stunning photos on Facebook—and I share them—I get a comment from a friend. I’ve never met him in person, but we know each other through a common dedication to helping kids born with cleft lip and palate. Here’s what he wrote:
David…you have no idea how this made my day! Anna is stunning…as are all these kids. As someone who has walked…and continues to walk… in their shoes, I can’t help but feel how uplifting and empowering an experience this must have been for them. They may not feel it now, but trust me, it will serve them well. It will help them hear the most important voice they need to hear….their own….”I am beautiful”
I can’t add anything more to that.
Photos @2012 by Red Letter Days. I’ve only included Anna’s photos in this post out of respect for the privacy of the other families. The children will be featured as the newest faces of Smile Oregon over the next few months, and when you see them you’ll agree that all the kids are as beautiful as Anna is. Or, if you’re on Facebook, you can visit Smile Oregon and Red Letter Days Photography and see the photos now.