Penny J Ridler Barton is an expat who recently contacted Mission Smile and became part the journey of Smile Miracles. While visiting Chowpatty beach in Mumbai, she found two children, Ganesh and Kunal, severely afflicted with cleft. Penny helped these unfortunate children to get their Smile back. We are glad to share Penny’s thoughtful letter with you. Here are excerpts of her journey of Smile Miracles in her own words:
“My name is Penny. Originally from England, my husband and I have been expats for many years. This is my second stint in Mumbai and this time I have been living in Breach Candy for almost two years. I find India endlessly fascinating.
I first caught a glimpse of Ganesh on the evening of the 12th March 2016. The car was moving fast and I just caught a glimpse of a sad distorted little face and a flash of teeth where no teeth should have been and we were gone. The next day I looked out for Ganesh and there he was where he always seemed to be, in the arms of older children being held up to beg from passing cars. Whilst his disfigurement meant that he was an asset in the begging game, this was no life for a baby.
I hadn’t a clue what to do next but I couldn’t just ignore him so I asked my friends if they knew of an NGO that could help. Amazingly that very same week Mission Smile had invited them to a fundraiser due to be held on Friday 18th March 2016. But I couldn’t go; I would be out of town. I was devastated!
That’s when the magic began to happen! I emailed Mission Smile, and got an instant response. Yes, they could help Ganesh and not only that; they were having a mission near Mumbai on the 31st March 2016.
Once I had some help to offer I went down to Chowpatty to find out more about Ganesh. Ganesh’s mother Shannu has two older children, a boy of five and a girl of eight and they live on Chowpatty beach under a tree next to the pigeon feeding station. This section of the sandy beach is filthy and infested with rats. It is a multi generational Maharati family of about thirty people and they have lived there for many decades. They say that they are flower sellers but they appear to survive by begging. The fact that Ganesh, a baby with a severe bilateral cleft managed to survive under those conditions speaks much of the devotion of his mother Shannu. She told me that she would do anything for her son and smiled for the first time when I said I might be able to find help for Ganesh.
Then the second surprise, Shannu told me there was another child on the beach who also had a cleft palate. I was very worried. Would Mission Smile be able to help the second child too?
Kunal is about 18 months old and his problems were if anything more severe than Ganesh’s. Kanul lives about 150 yards away from Ganesh but on the pavement. His family are from Gujarat. Kunal’s great grandmother used to live in railway accommodation. When she retired the family had to live on the pavement opposite Chowpatty beach. They also sell flowers for a few hours every day.
Shannu went running to fetch Kunal but in fact I wasn’t able to take pictures of him till the 24th of March. Still Mission Smile agreed to help. By this stage everything had happened so effortlessly and so fast that it all felt like a fairy story.
I was ecstatic; I might be able to be instrumental in something that could dramatically improve the life of not one but two children. I couldn’t quite let myself believe it would happen. I felt blessed and still do.
On the 26th March, Rowena from Mission Smile in Mumbai came to assess the children and all seemed to be well. But then Kunal’s mother Aarti and her mother became concerned, they were worried and didn’t want Kunal to go. Then Shannu said she couldn’t go on her own so I agreed to be her chaperone. We had a long conversation with Kunal’s grandmother and eventually we managed to overcome her fears and she decided to allow her daughter and grandson to travel to Valdas for the operation.
On 30th March, only 16 days after I first saw Ganesh, with great trepidation and excitement, I set off to pick up my two ladies and their babies, half convinced that Kunal wouldn’t come but I was pleasantly surprised to find the families were waiting and ready to go.
The two little boys were excited by the train journey but the mothers whilst impressed by the air-conditioning and the comfort of the train and never having travelled without their families, were very anxious until one of the surgeons joined us in the carriage and put us all at ease.
After we arrived the little ones and their mothers were very well looked after until the day of screening; Ganesh and Kunal were screened through multiple stations. Volunteers helped to manage the crowd and the medical volunteers carefully checked each of the Cleft children to understand their fitness for the surgery. Meanwhile it was a very reassuring for Shannu and Aaarti, the two mothers, to see so many other children similar to Ganesh and Kunal.
We waited till evening to know the names of the children who had been selected for surgery. I was happy to find that Ganesh was selected but Kunal’s surgery had to be temporarily postponed because he had a chest infection.
It was an anxious moment for Ganesh’s mother as her little boy was wheeled into the Operation Theatre. She and I had no idea what to expect. Because we were so worried, the surgery seemed to take forever but then at last it was over and we could see the amazing transformation. Ganesh suddenly was a normal little boy just like all the other little boys and his mother couldn’t stop smiling. This rather sad and resigned lady, worn out by a life of hardship, smiled and smiled and she’s still smiling. When I think of it, I smile too. I had never before witnessed a miracle.
Two days later Kunal was pronounced fit for surgery. His mother, Aarti having seen Ganesh was little more confident that everything would be fine and Kunal’s surgery was also nothing short of miraculous; I am in awe at the skill and dedication of the surgical team.
Back in Mumbai, on Chowpatty beach it was a time of joy and thanksgiving. Shannu, still wreathed in smiles, now presented her beautiful little boy to her amazed and overjoyed extended family. Two days later Kunal arrived fit and well and was looking absolutely wonderful. His family couldn’t have been happier and could not believe their good fortune.
The boys have had a couple of postoperative checkups and are doing very well. As for me it still feels like a miracle and like Shannu, every time I think of it I smile.”
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