Umbrellas, smiles and miracles
By Mireille Rita Grovier, photographs Courtesy Proyecto Cara Feliz
“Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella” is the beginning of a song that was published in 1927. Providing smile umbrellas is what Proyecto Cara Feliz (Project Happy Face) has been doing for over 30 years. The project is the creative idea of plastic surgeon Dr. Manuel Velazquez, and his Southern belle wife, Marsha Noble.
The impetus for Happy Face came in 1979 when Marsha, who was teaching in Chilpancingo, met Lucio. Seven-year-old Lucio and his family lived in the campo. Their home was a shack made of cornhusks, in the middle of a field, without running water, sewage or electricity. His construction worker father had taken Lucio and his siblings out of school, because Lucio’s classmates ridiculed his cleft lip. The father walked and then took a bus to town to work every day. When Marsha told Dr. Veláquez about Lucio´s need he performed Lucio’s surgery pro bono. Soon after, the family returned to town, the children were reenrolled in school, and Lucio was flashing huge smiles at everyone.
After Manuel and Marsha moved to Celaya in 1982, Marsha met Phyllis Guerra, the wife of the incoming mayor and the head of Celaya’s DIF. She was looking for programs to implement in the DIF that would help poor families. Marsha shared the vision she and Manuel had of starting a program to rehabilitate cleft palate children. Ms. Guerra offered them a place for consultations in the DIF and assisted in acquiring donors to pay for the surgeries. On May 5, 1983, consultations were given to the first 15 patients. Most of them were brought from San Miguel by Jack and Luisa Velte. Two of the patients were teenaged sisters from a ranch near San Miguel. Marta and Maria had been confined to their house because their parents thought their cleft lips were a curse from God. The girls´ hair was disheveled; they were poorly clothed and dirty. Dr. Velázquez, who gave his time pro bono, repaired their lips and palates, ensuring them new lives out in the world. Several years later, Maria brought her beautiful and healthy son, whom she had named Manuel, to visit the clinic.
Another patient, Doña María, had surgery at the age of 67. For her entire life she had hidden her cleft lip behind her rebozo, (shawl). When she returned home, her grandchildren did not recognize her at first.
Currently Project Happy Face is considered to be the best privately funded cleft palate program in Mexico. Happy Face’s funds come from private donors, Smile Train and nominal fees paid by the patient’s families. Happy Face is the only Mexican program affiliated with the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association.
Dr. Velázquez has spoken in international cleft palate congresses in Australia, Sweden, Paris, the United States, South Africa, and Canada, sharing more effective surgical techniques for closing the palate that do not cause permanent harm to the upper jaw.
To learn more about Happy Face visit www.proyectocarafeliz.com. Contributions to the project are tax-deductible in Mexico. Donors that require a US tax-exempt receipt should contact Marsha Velazquez at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Velázquezes now reside in San Miguel de Allende.
Proyecto Cara Feliz A.C.
Blvd .Lopez Mateo 904 Ote.
Dr. Manuel Velazquez
Malaga 34 LaMesa-Malanquin
San Miguel de Allende, GTO
Cost: Contributions to the project are taxable deductible in Mexico. Donors that require a US tax-exempt receipt should contact Marsha Noble Velazquez at email@example.com.