“Many of us, including myself, take smiling for granted and don’t realize how fortunate we are,” says Taekman. But when she traveled to Mexico as an ambassador with Smile Train, a nonprofit that provides free surgery to children with cleft palates, she saw up close how important a smile can be.

“The father of this adorable 6-month-old told me I was an angel who came to his home to help his child,” Taekman recalls. “That comment instantly brought tears to my eyes.”

A world apart

In the developing world, more than 170,000 children are born each year with cleft palates, a condition in which the upper lip and roof of the mouth contain an opening that often disfigures the face. The condition can be fixed with surgery, and in developed countries few people are seen with cleft palates.

But in poorer countries, it’s a different story. Many families can’t afford surgery, and the impacts on cleft children can be devastating. Most are unable to eat or speak properly, and some are prevented from going to school or holding jobs; normal life is not an option.

 “'The gift of a smile is absolutely priceless.'”

Smile Train is dedicated to helping these children by providing life-changing surgery and training doctors and hospitals around the world. “It was truly amazing to see first-hand the incredible work that is accomplished through the help of Smile Train,” Taekman recalls. “I met the families, the patients and even had the opportunity to enter the operating room and observe a surgery.”

Cleft surgery can cost as little as $250. “Why not take that money and put it towards something meaningful that will forever change the life of a child and community?” she asks. “The gift of a smile is absolutely priceless.”