I Can Smile and You Can, Too

smile image pic

This is the text of a speech that I gave recently at the Ahwatukee Kiwanis Club in Ahwatukee, Arizona. Many thanks to all of the Kiwanians that were present and quite kind. I’m available for speaking engagements across the Phoenix area and elsewhere.


It all started after my freshman year in high school. I went to have my final reparative facial surgery done, and ironically it happened on the day that actor John Wayne died in 1979.
So I went into the operating room at a Houston, Texas hospital and had the work done. When I came out, I did not see my face in the mirror for three days. Good thing because when I did, I looked like I was in a street fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. … and I definitely lost.
Needless to say, my face was swollen from the work done around my nose and lips. I left the hospital four days after the surgery and my mom and I drove back to Beaumont, Texas, where I was raised. It is about 80-90 miles east of Houston.
Now I had to go back and visit my plastic surgeon, who was a really good man and took care of me. Upon the initial post-op visit (as I remember it), he checked me out and said everything looked pretty good … except for some additional skin around my upper lip. He suggested doing an in-office procedure that would reduce the size of my upper lip. I said “OK” and, again as I remember it, Mom and I drove back to Beaumont only to return a week later for the procedure.
I sat up in a chair and one of his assistants came in and numbed my upper lip. I could not feel anything. Before anything happened, though, the plastic surgeon did explain what was going to take place. He was going to use an electric implement to burn away this excess fatty tissue. He let me know what would happen and that there would be some stitches, which would come out later.
OK fine … and so the procedure started. Yep, it started … and I felt absolutely nothing around my upper lip. Here’s the catch, though. Nothing was done to prevent my nasal passages from picking up the scent of the procedure. In other words, I could smell my own skin being burnt off from my lip. In fact, I remember even seeing a couple of smoky wafts pass by my eyes.
I was 14 years old at the time.
Now the reason I share this story with you is not to gross you out. I share it because there were definitely some emotions and feelings rumbling around my stomach. I felt nauseated and frustrated. I know this much. Upon leaving the plastic surgeon’s office, I told my mom that I didn’t want to have any more surgical procedures done at all. She said OK and that was that.
I have not had any further procedures since then … yet that memory … and those feelings and emotions … are quite present with me in this moment as I share my story with you.
Why is this important? Because many people with facial differences, including cleft lip, cleft palate and craniofacial anomalies, have to deal with feelings and emotions on a regular basis.
Anger, fear, sadness, frustration, loneliness, happiness, joy, bliss, serenity … you name it. All of them rumble around inside the hearts and souls of children, adults and parents.
One in three children around the world are born each day with a facial difference. While there are opinions all over the place about how this happens and a few even connect a certain medication to these births, no hard-and-fast evidence has been produced to singularly say that “this” is how children are born with these facial differences.
Many organizations that are international in scope do incredible work by providing surgical procedures in foreign countries. Children and adults who never have had the pleasure of fully smiling brightly now can do so thanks to these organizations and groups.
Let me share this story from a well-known international organization called Smile Train. I’m not affiliated with the group personally, yet I do honor the work that it does around the world:
“When Lackson Koliesa was born, his mother Joyce was devastated when she saw that he had a cleft lip. Joyce learned from an early age how kids and adults treated people who look differently and she knew the suffering that lay ahead for her sweet boy.
Joyce was from a large family, including an uncle with a cleft lip. “My uncle had a cleft lip and was called an ‘ogre’ by people in the village. When we walked down the streets kids used to scatter whenever they saw him, they all had their harrowing theories on why he had a cleft lip,” Joyce recalls.
Joyce tried as best as she could to get her son’s cleft lip fixed. But her hopes dwindled as time went on. She couldn’t afford to pay for a reparative surgery for her son and she thought Lackson was in store for the same future as her uncle.
When she learned of Smile Train and the free surgeries local Smile Train surgeons help provide, she finally found her answer. She embarked on a four-hour-long journey from her town in Solwezi to Ndola. Joyce was filled with uncertainty the entire trip, wondering if her son would receive the free surgery. When Joyce and Lackson arrived in Ndola, little Lackson was screened and cleared for surgery.
It frightened Joyce to send her baby into surgery, but when he emerged from the operating room less than an hour later, she knew she’d made the right decision. Lackson will never have to suffer the way her uncle did.”
That is quite a success story indeed.
Yet what about the emotional effects of having facial differences? What about living year after year, day after day, with people staring and looking at us like we’re some ogres from another planet, as was just mentioned in the story? It happens. Even parents whose children are, thankfully, in good health and look facially OK, seemingly will let their kids pick on or bully those who have facial differences.
It is quite hard to find safe spaces where those in the cleft and craniofacial community can healthily express their emotions. Even smiling can be a challenge … not merely because of the facial differences themselves, but there also are other health-related issues that prove difficult, too.
The reason that I speak out about the emotional aspect so much is that I believe it gets short circuited. I mean that those who feel their feelings may not be in a great place to express them openly. Consider those who live in Third World countries … even Latin America and Central America. Some cultures where children like me are born seem to be under the misguided belief that we are “Satan’s spawn” and “children of the devil.” No, it really is true. Family members will make sure that we are hidden in the back of homes or shunned when even seen in public.
Really? Tell me. Do you think that leads to healthy self-esteem, no matter what language or culture it is in?
Even here in the United States, as advanced a nation as we are in spite of our similarities and differences on many issues, people will tend to just see people like me as “less than.”
It’s baloney. It really is and I’ll tell you why.
I can smile and you can, too.
Now my smile might not be like yours, yet I can smile and you can, too.
Have you ever given yourself an opportunity to truly smile at a sunset, a sunrise, gazing upon your wife, husband or partner, your child?
When was the last time you felt your own feelings and emotions? Yours … not someone else’s?
I can smile and you can, too.
Consider the fact that there are many muscles within the human face. Our emotions can engage the face to either smile or frown. Are there exceptions? Yes, if a person has been through a stroke.
What are you feeling right now? Do you know? Are you aware enough to identify them?
This is a bit embarrassing to admit publicly, but I never really got in touch with any of my own emotions until I was nearly 40 years old. I’m 50 now.
Take time to write out what emotions kick up inside you today. There are no right or wrong answers.
In doing this little exercise, you will be able to tap into an infinite stream of emotional well-being that lies within you. The same stream that lies within every single person in this room.
Now you can call me a little nutty in my belief around the connection between emotions and feelings and how they can affect the facial difference community.
Yet there is simply no getting around it that your emotions and feelings affect YOU. They really do.
Are you going to take time to smile a little more today? Or continue to let others’ attitudes derail whatever you have planned?
Let me offer three suggestions that can help all of us smile a little more today.
1) Try a little tenderness. Just like the old Otis Redding song, it is OK to let a little tenderness in your own heart and share that with another person. There is something magical when it happens.
2) Stand in another person’s shoes. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Yet if someone is really getting your goat or upsetting you, then try standing in their spot and see what emotions stir up for you. Maybe it is not the other person who is upsetting you so much but YOU.
3) As hokey as it sounds, love can heal a lot. The emotion of love simply stands head and shoulders above hate, fear, guilt, shame and loneliness. Those in the facial difference world have dealt with these hardened emotions for a long, long time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us — and I mean myself as well — loved a little more than trying to “beat out” that other person … our perceived enemy.
With the world of facial differences, there are people thirsty for love. Thirsty for acceptance. Thirsty for a smile.
I believe these are all possible. If you will carry inside your heart today that “I can smile and you can, too,” then observe how many people become infected — in a positive way — by your emotional state.
This is not impossible. It is quite possible … and it all simply comes from your own heart.
As I leave you today, hold on to that smiling thought.
Always remember … every minute counts … and you are loved.
Thank you.

“CleftCast” — Emotional Abuse Within the Cleft/Craniofacial Community …

And here you and I are again, reconnecting on this blog for another “CleftCast.”

To say that there have been technical issues at my end over the past few weeks is, shall I say, frustrating.

Nevertheless, the squirrels were back on their work wheels this morning (after plenty of nuts) and all is well.

This “CleftCast” #podcast focuses on emotional abuse within the cleft and craniofacial community. This continues a series about facing and talking about “taboo” subjects.

Well, forget about the “taboo” part.

I’m talking about it and, I hope, that you will listen, download and share the #podcast with your friends. Or simply listen over and over for yourself.

Download it through the link here or through iTunes or BlogTalkRadio.

Many thanks for your support and love. We’re in it together, friends.

Every minute counts … and you are loved.


Blessings and peace,



“CleftCast” on “The Healthy Smile” for middle school and high school children …

Hi friends,

This week’s “CleftCast” #podcast continues “The Healthy Smile” series, focusing on the middle school and high school years of growing up.


These 8 areas were covered:

What A Fabulous Face

Have A Healthy Self-Esteem

You Are NOT Your Anomaly

Feel Your Way Through Life

Believe In Yourself

If You’re Down, Don’t Stay There

Smile More, Frown Less

Love Is The Answer


Hope you enjoy it. Thanks for listening, thanks for downloading, thanks for caring.

Reach out and tell someone that they mean something to you today. It’ll make their day brighter … and make yours that much better.

Every minute counts … and you are loved.




“The Healthy Smile” … A little more on early childhood development …

In support of “The Healthy Smile” four-part series that I am rolling out through “CleftCast”, here’s a breakdown of the key points from the first #podcast that launched on Thursday.

I talked about eight specific areas, following the acronym “CHILDREN” in doing so.

C = Come Sit Down and Listen

H = Have A Happy Face

I = I Love You

L = Laugh Time

D = Do Your Best

R = Run And Be Free

E = Every Minute Counts

N = Never Doubt About Love

Make sure and download “CleftCast” this week by following the link above. Also, “CleftCast” is now available on iTunes, too. Yes, it’s free.

Every minute counts … and you are loved.


Blessings and peace,


You Are An Inspiration …

candlelight for inspiration

Inspiration … just the word itself might cause two internal reactions.

One: “Ah man, inspiration is so overrated. People talk about it all the stinking time. Yap, yap, yap … inspiration. Yeah, they don’t know how it is to walk through life with this face and body of mine and have people stare at me, make comments, or worse … having people in my own family shun me. Inspiration my butt. Take that inspiration and shove it.”

Two: “Inspiration is just what makes me feel better inside. It brings out the best in me and lets me stand up, be strong and move through life each day the best that I can do. Sure, I know I have limitations with my face and body … yet the limitations are (in some cases) what I put on myself. Not always. It helps to be an inspiration to others and feel inspired as much as possible.”

That’s two pretty stark contrasts when it comes to inspiration. Maybe exaggerated a bit, and I’m cool with that observation.

My point, though, is simply this. Just being YOU … as you are today, as you are reading this right now … are an inspiration. Even if you don’t even believe in inspiration, like it’s some hocus-pocus bullshit … that’s OK, too. Children, teenagers and young adults are always looking to peers for encouragement and inspiration. Sometimes, their craniofacial teams have therapists or social workers that can help support them through guidance, support and even a safe touch of love.

For some of us adults in the cleft lip/cleft palate/craniofacial community around the world, inspiration might have been found within a church, synagogue, mosque, nature or a trusted friend. Just a person who believed in us and loved us as we were without trying to change ourselves.

Inspiration can come through the sweet sounds of music. It can come through a wonderful book. Great works of literature have given men and women the strength to move through obstacles that have grown in their lives. Inspiration can be found in spiritual texts from the Holy Scriptures, the Torah, the Koran, and the Talmud. It can be found in poetry from writers like Khalil Gibran and Rumi to modern-day authors like Paolo Coelho and others.

Let me say this, too. For many people in this community, holy books have been used in harmful ways … to produce shame, guilt, fear and as a means to physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually abuse people. I am definitely NOT encouraging that type of behavior … just to be clear. These are just examples of where some people find inspiration.

What can be the greatest source of inspiration for one member of the cleft/craniofacial community to another? YOU! Yes, you … the one that’s going through the surgeries or the one that’s been through the surgeries, the doctor’s appointments, life’s triumphs and disappointments. YOU are the next man or woman up to take the stage of life and pave the way for others that come along in your footsteps.

YOU are an inspiration.

I am an inspiration.

We are all inspirations for one another … and, from my perspective, all of us have a little bit of light within us all to share with others. How bright or how dim that light is can pretty much be up to us and how we’re taking care of ourselves.

For the little kids and young children, just being themselves and allowing them to have the space to grow up as naturally as possible … that gives them safety and protection to be light.

For the young adults and teenagers trying to find their path in life, just figuring out what they want to do with their lives in this moment can be inspirational to others watching them from a distance.

For the adults in the 20-30-40 year old range, just staying healthy, getting the help you might need to figure out if this is the path of life to follow or is another one calling y0u … when people watch and observe you move through life with as much dignity and honor as possible, they are inspired.

For the older adults (OK friends, that mean’s 50 and up), did you ever consider that your journey can help others in the cleft/craniofacial community grow and become the women and men to support those that are still figuring out their path? YES!

So why are candles burning at the top of this blog post, you might ask. I choose to see light as a metaphor for inspiration. Candlelight, for centuries, has been symbolic of inspiration in times of solitude. Nature is pretty damned good, too, for inspiration. Look up into the skies … see mountains … breathe in fresh air … smell the sweet, cleansing aroma of rain … these touch our senses and even go deeper.

Be the best YOU that you can be today and every day. Trust me, people … YOU are an inspiration.

Every minute counts … and you are loved.


“CleftCast” on Overcoming The Fear of Speaking Up for Yourself …

Hi friends … it’s that time of the week again! 🙂

I hope this message finds you all doing well.

This week’s “CleftCast” #podcast focuses on overcoming the fear of speaking up for yourself. It’s a tough thing to do when you are just learning how to speak, how to say words and enunciate properly, and it’s hard to do if people around you don’t want to hear what you have to say. How odd! This is not always the case, OK. Yet it happens sometimes in different communities, be they school, church, or friends.

Well, here’s “CleftCast” and I hope you enjoy it.

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Let’s start a conversation that keeps everyone active, vibrant and involved. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Blessings and peace,





Your child’s emotional needs and an upcoming offer …

Hi there,

I’m really grateful that I received so much feedback to my earlier post around your child’s emotional and behavioral responses.

Learning how to bring out a conversation from a cleft lip/cleft palate/craniofacial child when he or she shuts down because of strong emotions is certainly a challenge. It would be for any child, yet I know because of the challenges that parents and family members face with the young child that it can feel overwhelming.

I remember when I was around 7 years old, my parents attempted to divorce. Now I had really no idea what was going on because the only thing I was told was that my father asked me if I wanted to go stay at my aunt and uncle’s for a while. I said yes. My mother reacted like I had just killed her. It felt that way, OK. My stomach (the place where all of my internal pain resides) was upset and I felt it. But I did not know how to effectively share my feelings and emotions with my parents. The dominant emotions were fear and anger for me at that age.

Interacting with the outside world when others are looking at the craniofacial anomaly ONLY also is something to overcome. It is good to remember that a lot of people at a young child’s age are, well, not well informed when it comes to how their children look. Some of that comes from ill-informed parents (in my humble opinion) and some comes from whatever the “cultural norm” look is for that day.

Being able to talk, speak and even wave in a friendly manner might be too much to do.

This can especially happen within a school environment. Children just may not know or understand your child’s facial look, slow speech, speech impediment, cleft lip, cleft palate … they may just see the visual side of your child and not have the ability to see beneath that or into his or her eyes. I can’t make this as a blanket statement because there just might be one or two children who are able to say hi and connect in a way that will turn into a friendship. It’s also helpful when teachers understand a child’s abilities and will actually listen to the parent or guardian.

Good teachers can be great gateways to growth not only intellectually but emotionally, too.

These are all important issues to cover, and covering all of them in one post would be impossible.

I will be offering a series of teleseminars very soon that touch on these and other topics for those 3- to 8-year-olds in your lives. More information about these teleseminars will be coming out soon.

In the meantime, tell me what TWO questions not covered in this message that you have that can help your child’s emotional life become easier? Leave your questions below and I’ll see them.

Thanks so much and take care.

Every minute counts … and you are loved.