Marne puts a smile on children’s dial

The Fair Cape Dairies cow, John Kibari, Operation Smiles Adva Brivik and Chelsea van Eeden with the cheque.

Being able to smile is something that is often taken for granted, but that’s not so for those who have surgery to correct the cleft lip or palate they are born with.

This year, Operation Smile made this life-changing procedure possible for 44 people, who otherwise would have been unable to afford it – it can cost between R45 000 and R70 000, depending on the severity of the deformity.

Those who benefited from Operation Smile’s good work can also thank a 10-year-old girl from Vredekloof.

Marne van der Merwe, a Grade 4 Eversdal Primary School pupil, asked her principal to help the NPO after hearing about the project.

“I believe that everyone should be able to smile,” said Marne.

So the school decided to raise money by running an inter-house competition to collect bottle caps for recycling. It collected a lot, almost 400 000 to be exact, including a single drop-off of 29 000.

Marne got her entire family and friends involved in the campaign. On Wednesday December 7, the Fair Cape Dairies Foundation presented a R23 500 cheque to the school. In 2015, the trust had run the Operation Smile Campaign to collect used bottle caps, as well as several other charity events to support the surgeries.

It’s because of people like Marne and all those who donated bottle caps, not to mention everyone else involved in Operation Smile, that John Kibari can look in a mirror with confidence.

Mr Kibari, from Kigali, in Rwanda, only had the corrective surgery at 28.

He spoke to the children of Eversdal Primary about just what it meant to him and how he had been teased as a child.

He had felt embarrassed. He had felt ashamed.

“Everyone who saw me would laugh and even point me out to others,” he said.

Mr Kibari’s mother had sought help for her son, but access to surgery in Rwanda was limited. And a move to South Africa in 2010 did not bring any relief from the staring and whispering.

“It was even worse when I got here. When I would travel in taxis or buses, I would see and hear people talking about me in all the different languages.”

Mr Kibari was operated on during the Operation Smile mission in February 2013. His friends and family were in awe of the transformation.

“When I came from hospital, some people were confused and asking, ‘Is this John?’ Before, I couldn’t close the lips and bring them together; the teeth were out. And now I can close my mouth,” he said.

Mr Kibari is now a proud ambassador for Operation Smile.

Operation Smile programme co-ordinator Adva Brivik said babies with cleft lips or palates found it hard to suckle, stunting their growth and sometimes even leading to death.

Cleft lips and cleft palates are birth defects that occur when a baby’s lip or mouth does not form properly during pregnancy.

“We received an overwhelming response to the campaign. It’s amazing to see how this project has become cross generational with young and old getting involved,” she said.

The surgeries are free for patients but a cleft lip or cleft palate operation and follow-up care cost Operation Smile about R5 500. The organisation works with the Western Cape Department of Health.

Marne plans to continue collecting bottle caps next year, giving more people with cleft lips or palates an opportunity to smile.