HAITI- The young girl beams as she faces the camera, confidence lighting up her dark brown eyes.
She can finally enjoy the basic activities most kids her age take for granted.
The teen, identified only by her first name Saintelise, now enjoys playing with her friends, going to church and attending school.
But she wasn’t always a confident child growing up.
Saintelise was born with a cleft lip and palate. This completely altered her appearance and because her parents had never seen anyone with the condition, they felt they were being punished.
They didn’t allow her to attend school like her nine siblings and Saintelise spent most of her days confined to home in rural Haiti.
The only time she ever ventured out was to go to the market to buy food items for her mother.
Saintelise was a reclusive and shy girl who believed she was unlovable and an embarrassment to her family.
American Jennie Ellis, who worked with the organisation CPI Haiti to build a school in the village of Chauffard where the family lives, says she was drawn to Saintelise and felt compelled to help but didn’t know where to begin.
“We had witnessed the impossible accomplished,” Jennie says. “But when it came to Saintelise I had my doubts. I didn’t know where to begin to get her help.”
Saintelise’s mother had tried without success before to get her daughter help.
She’d heard doctors were visiting the country’s capital Port-au-Prince to see patients but could assist only the first 10 to arrive.
Desperate to find help for her daughter, she woke up early in the morning to walk more than 32km to the hospital.
After a long journey down the mountain, Saintelise was the 11th patient and therefore turned away.
Her mother was crushed. For years she blamed herself that her daughter missed what she saw as her one chance at getting help.
When Jennie returned to the US, she started showing everyone she knew pictures of Saintelise in a bid to find help.
“Then a friend of ours told me about Smile Train,” she recalls. “I sent Smile Train a picture and a plea for help.”
Smile Train is an international children’s charity that helps kids cleft lips and palates.
The organisation trains, funds and equips local medical professionals in more than 90 countries to provide free cleft repair surgery and comprehensive cleft care in their own communities.
So far they’ve helped nearly two million children.
When the Smile Train team agreed to perform surgery on Saintelise, she and her family were overjoyed.
After an appointment date was set, they travelled for seven hours to Smile Train’s partner hospital in Haiti.
Saintelise has become somewhat of an icon in her community. The teen’s surgery is seen as nothing short of a miracle.
After 14 years of hiding from the world, Saintelise is finally ready to step out and spread the message of hope – one smile at a time.