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The Most Important Thing You Will Ever Wear is the Expression on Your Face

No one knows who said this phrase, but it is an important idea to consider for many reasons. For example, how do we talk about courage? How do we talk about intimacy? How do we talk about identity? We talk about the face. We face our fears. We discuss important things face-to-face. We know someone when we can put a name to a face. The face is the conduit for expressing the most basic and fundamental human emotions.

These are the ideas the Daniel Wennogle, a Denver-based Civil Litigator and Trial Attorney, brought to light back in November at the Fourth Annual Restoring Hope Event (hosted by DecorAsian to benefit Mending Faces). Before Dan found his passion for practicing law and participating in court, and before he became a die-hard Broncos fan and an avid fly fisherman, he was a child born with a cleft lip and palate.

If you have never heard of a cleft lip or cleft palate, it isn’t as rare as you might think. In fact, according to a study by the World Health Organization, a child is born with a cleft lip or palate somewhere in the world approximately every two-to-three minutes. While the cause is currently unknown amongst medical researchers, it is one of the more common birth defects worldwide.

“I was lucky,” Wennogle says. “I was born with a cleft lip and palate in the United States of America with a caring and devoted family that had access to top notch medical resources. As a result, I had a normal, happy and healthy childhood. I’ve also been able to make friends, be outgoing and have good social relationships. I’ve been captain of sports teams, played lead roles in plays, and most importantly, I’ve been able to know what it feels like to fall in love.”

Now imagine another child half way across the world living in the Philippines that isn’t afforded the same opportunity to gain access to medical care like Dan received. In these situations, ear disease and dental problems can occur frequently, as well as problems with speech development. These children are also typically shunned by society and therefore cannot experience the same quality of life as “normal” children without a cleft lip or palate.

A cleft lip and/or palate surgery is by no means simple, but it is not as involved as some major surgeries performed for children with more serious health issues. Yet, this manageable level of medical care can literally change the world for a child and their family because it can change the way he or she interacts with people. “Our faces are how we interact with the world,” Wennogle continues. “A smile, a kiss, a spoken word; all of these things are difficult and compromised with a cleft lip and/or palate. Yet these things lie close to the core of what it means to feel human. This surgery is much more than cosmetic because it changes lives for the better and I am a living example of that.”

Dan is correct. Research shows the recognition of faces is an important neurological mechanism that an individual uses every single day of their life. Our brains are literally hardwired to trigger instant reactions based on the image of a human face and any distortion in that image makes it more difficult to pick-up on nonverbal communication, such as emotion. Those that are born with a minor birth defect like a cleft lip can suffer deeply from this subconscious differentiation.

And it is because of this neurological construct that Dan recognizes, along with the life he has led, happiness he’s enjoyed and the passion he shares that inspires him to want to give back to children in need. “I wanted to get involved with a local grassroots nonprofit called Mending Faces that brings wonderful people together that share a strong commitment to making a large impact on children’s lives that were born with a cleft lip and/or palate.”

In February of 2015, a group of volunteers (with both medical and nonmedical backgrounds) travelled to Kalibo, Aklan, Philippines with a goal of performing 60 cleft lip and palate surgeries for children in need and at no cost to their families. The group also raised the funds necessary to bring along supplies, equipment and care packages to help the children and their families cope with the hardship of surgery. This took a lot of planning, effort and money to get these volunteers (who donate their own time and pay their own way) and the necessary supplies to the children in need.

What’s amazing is in just six days, Mending Faces exceeded our goal – we treated 83 patients and conducted 87 total surgeries – both records for a Mending Faces mission! By the numbers that included 54 cleft lips and 33 cleft palates. That’s $1,000,000 in services! This annual medical mission would not be possible without our partners in the Philippines, the U.S. and around the world including generous volunteers and donors.

From my perspective, it is hard to digest the happenings of this week and put the experience into words. First and foremost the volunteers are what made everything so exceptional. Regardless of race, religion or country of origin, everyone came together to do something truly inspiring for generations to come. We each played our separate parts well and when all of those efforts came together, the results spoke for themselves. Now an impoverished, but extraordinary group of children have reason and ability to smile and communicate without fear or limitation.

“For a child with a cleft lip or palate to receive the opportunity of a lifetime, all it takes is a small amount of support that will make a difference for an entire lifetime,” continued Wennogle.

A surgery to repair a cleft lip or cleft palate is roughly $250. This is due to the fact that our volunteers donate their time as well as cover their travel and lodging expenses to participate in the medical mission.To support or learn more about Mending Faces and its most recent medical mission, please visit: http://www.mendingfaces.org/.

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