By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Reporter

Every year, more than 170,000 children in the developing world are born with cleft lips and palates, joining the millions more who are in need of treatment.


But thanks to organizations like Smile Train, these children are getting the treatment they need.

Founded in 1999, Smile Train is an organization and charity that provides corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates. Its services are offered for free with the help of partner doctors, hospitals, and organizations in more than 85 developing countries.

The Smile Train arrived in the Philippines in 2001, bringing smiles to patients and helping them live normal lives.

The organization performs 6,000 life-changing cleft repair surgeries every year in the country and has seen the number of its partner hospitals nationwide grow to 50.

One way that Smile Train is able to do what it does is through Team Empower, its global endurance fund-raising program which gives athletes the ability to make their race count by creating online fund-raising pages and encouraging friends and family to show support by donating to the cause.

Smile Train Team Empower has charity slots in sold-out marathons and multi-sport races, including a number of Ironman races around the world, where athletes who want to do their share for cleft charity can join and help.

This year marks the first time that Smile Train Team Empower is participating in the Cobra Ironman 70.3 race in Mactan, Cebu, which will be held from Aug. 5 to 6.

The international competition — is composed of a 1.9-kilometer swim, a 90-km bike race, and a 21-km run — will test the will and endurance of the participants, including Smile Train Team Empower’s 10-man team.

Rojan Pajarin
Rojan Pajarin, who was born with a cleft lip and palate and is now an elite runner, will race for Smile Train Team Empower at Cobra Ironman 70.3 race in Mactan, Cebu, this weekend. — SMILE TRAIN PHILIPPINES FACEBOOK ACCOUNT

The all-Filipino team is composed of Rojan Pajarin, who was born with a cleft lip and palate and is now an elite runner; Dr. Gene Tiongco, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who performs cleft surgeries for Smile Train; swim coach Bing Benares; equestrian Lucas Lorenzo; fashion designer Dennis Lustico; and seasoned triathletes JR Mejia, Bernard Perez, JJ Sarona, Aron Villarosa, and Arlene Yu.

The athletes have committed to raise $2,000 — or at least P100,000 — each to help fund cleft surgeries in the country.

“Such a platform has brought us to people who otherwise would not have known of us. It creates awareness. I mean a lot of people want to help, they just don’t know where, how, and who to give it to. But through our athletics program, a lot of athletes get to tap into their own networks. And even companies come in and join, even if before they are not into health they are more open to discussing [this] with Smile Train,” said Kimmy C. Flaviano, Country Director of Smile Train Philippines, in an interview with BusinessWorld as she talked about how effective the athletics program is in raising funds for the organization and how they hope the concept of Team Empower would be picked up in the country as much as it is in other parts of the world.

“A lot of athletes are passionate people and they are committed. So when they join Smile Train they are driven to succeed. They are proud of the affiliation and proud of the cause. It’s not about just finishing and beating their previous records, but also doing it and in the process helping others,” the Smile Train official added.

For Messrs. Tiongco and Lustico, joining Smile Train Team Empower was not a hard sell.

“It’s related to my line of work as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and we deal with cleft patients. I saw how many or how widespread cleft cases are here. In fact, statistics would say that in the Philippines, one out of 700 — or one out of 1,000 families — [has] a child born with a cleft lip or palate. So, through constant surgeries with people with cleft you realize that, number one, they come from depressed areas and far and remote areas — so that is why I join medical missions for it like what Smile Train is providing. And now they have this platform and it blended well for me that I can mix what I like doing as an athlete and volunteering and charity,” said Dr. Tiongco, who has run for Team Empower in races in London and Chicago.

“I got into Smile Train through a friend who is a doctor,” said Mr. Lustico. “I did not know anything about it before but when I was able to talk to them and see how they operate and how they help, I knew I had to join. The objective is very noble.” The couturier also said that he is raising funds for Smile Train by setting a portion of what he sells for the organization.

Fashion designer Dennis Lustico of Team Empower is raising funds for Smile Train by setting aside a portion of what he sells for it.

Both Team Empower athletes said raising funds for the organization is not as hard as they initially thought.

“When they (donors) see you are doing something [rather] than just asking directly for donations, they see that there is effort and that you are going through it along with the patient in order to get to the finish. When you talk about people with cleft it is easy because you can see it. I guess each one of us maybe knows or has come across a person with cleft. And the effect is very dramatic after each surgery as you can totally see the difference,” Dr. Tiongco said.

Ms. Flaviano said they are very encouraged by the reception the Team Empower program has been getting in the country.

“It has opened a lot of doors for us because of their (the athletes) efforts and more people and organizations want us to be their beneficiaries. It has gotten awareness for Smile Train and what we do,” said Ms. Flaviano.

“I have been with Smile Train since 2010 and at that time we were doing 3,000 surgeries a year with 30 partner hospitals and organizations, and now we have doubled that to 6,000 surgeries and 50 partners,” said Ms. Flaviano.

“It’s a growing effort. Before, 100% of our funding came from our head office but now we are getting support from fund-raising activities and corporate funding. And it’s very encouraging. We want to develop a culture of giving and sharing in the country, whether through our athletics program or other means, because it would surely go a long way and is life-changing for the patients,” she added.

To learn more about Smile Train Team Empower and the races, visit or e-mail