One of the most common birth defects in the world is a cleft lip and palate, where babies are born with an opening in the lip and/or roof of the mouth.
For children in New Zealand, surgery is readily available to fix the condition, but in developing countries such as the Philippines, children struggle to eat, breath and speak. They are often rejected socially and may not attend school or hold down a job.
Tauranga is home to the Ruel Foundation, which fundraises for the ‘Give a Smile’ campaign to provide surgery for these children.
The Ruel Foundation was set up by Tauranga’s David Cowie after a visit to the Philippines in 1999. There he met a small boy named Ruel with a cleft lip and palate who was near death as a result of his condition. He fundraised for Ruel’s surgery and the Foundation was born.
With the help of fundraising from Bay of Plenty residents, more than 1200 surgeries have since been performed on children in the Philippines, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
The organisation’s current CEO is Pauline Curtis-Smith from Tauranga, who runs an orphanage in the Philippines called Ruel House, catering for orphaned and abandoned children from birth to 10 years. A centre to help malnourished children has also been established.
Another Tauranga woman, Eunice Chivers, is the organisation’s child sponsorship and fundraising coordinator.
Funds are raised in New Zealand through loose change collection boxes on shop counters and fundraising events in the community. Every $250 raised funds a surgery for a child.
Eunice agrees that some will question why New Zealanders are fundraising for children overseas when there are plenty of New Zealand children with problems of their own.
“There are systems in place to help children in New Zealand,” says Eunice.
“These people live in the mountains in very poor provinces and have no help whatsoever. These days we help very young children, but when we first started these surgeries we saw older children who had been ostracised because of their condition.
“We also did a surgery for a 32-year-old lady who had been bullied all of her life and had never lifted her head up because she thought she was so ugly.
“When she came back after the surgery to have her sutures removed she cried and said ‘for the first time in my life I can hold my head up’.”
Eunice first became involved with the Foundation when she went with a group of volunteers from Bethlehem Baptist Church to help set up the orphanage in 2006.
Over the years she helped to fundraise for a paid nurse for the orphanage and two-and-a-half years ago, after watching the film ‘Noble’ about the work of children’s rights campaigner Christina Noble in Vietnam, felt compelled to revisit the Philippines.
“I went over there and set up the child sponsorship programme so every child in our orphanage or malnourished centre is sponsored.”
Eunice currently has about 130 sponsors, mainly from New Zealand and the USA, who sponsor children in the orphanage for a period of six months to three years until they find their ‘forever home’.
She is keen for more sponsors and any volunteers who would like to join the Ruel Foundation in its work.
For more information about the Ruel Foundation and the Give a Smile campaign visit: www.ruelfoundation.com