Smile Train has been fortunate to earn the support of many Americans with clefts. We consider ourselves even more fortunate still that so many members of this community have opened up to share their personal journeys with us.
Though everyone’s story is different, we noticed one consistent motif uniting nearly all of them: People with clefts felt alone. They longed to be in community with others who understood because it seemed like no one they knew did or could.
Fortunately, loneliness is a solvable problem. And as the world’s largest cleft-focused organization, it’s one we at Smile Train are uniquely positioned to respond to. Our conversations with the cleft community led to the idea for Cleft Con: a space where people with clefts could gather to make new friends, learn from some of the top experts in the field, and hear real talk on the emotional, medical, and logistical issues they know so well. We held the first one in fall 2020 (virtually). It was so successful that we got right to work organizing more.
There are now two US Cleft Cons each year (plus more in India and the UK): An in-person version in the summer and a virtual one in the fall. The one in summer 2023 was set to be not only the first in New York City, but likely the largest gathering of cleft-affected Americans in history. We needed to throw an event worthy of the occasion. The cleft community deserved no less.
Working with cleft community activists, we chose the themes of “resilience” and “beyond beautiful” for Cleft Con New York to stress the endurance and self-appreciation that comes from living with a cleft. These traits would be embodied by the powerful personal stories speakers would share without shame or fear.
To generate hype and excitement for the event, we sent everyone who RSVP’d a link to a virtual photo booth so that they would enter the conference already filled with cleft pride and feeling like part of a larger community. Additionally, we felt getting so many cleft-affected people to take photos of themselves reflected and reinforced the central message of Cleft Con.
We understood that branding would be crucial for both conveying Cleft Con’s themes and making attendees who often suffer from social anxiety feel welcome. We further understood that this necessitated de-emphasizing Smile Train’s branding, as our overall goal was to provide a safe space for the cleft community, not to fundraise. Our creative team made sure the look reflected this, designing a beautiful, partially open logo to suggest an exclusive, yet inviting atmosphere with only subtle nods to our branding in its color and font.
On the day itself, we set the tone early. The more than 140 attendees entered the auditorium to find a stage designed to look like the New York City skyline surrounded by powerful adjectives. This was later complimented by images of Smile Train patients from around the world, as well as memorable photography from the previous year’s Cleft Con.
The program itself showcased powerful and inspiring stories from individuals with clefts and offered hands-on workshops that provided practical skills and strategies for addressing challenges this community knows so well.
Not many conferences make a lasting impact on attendees like Cleft Con. At each iteration, people who felt alone their whole lives suddenly find themselves in a room (physical or virtual) filled only with others who really understand. Once together, attendees feel free to be themselves with a community they know and trust. Honest conversations follow. Friendships form. Lives change. And a community that has spent most of its history on the margins, even in places where cleft care is widely available, go out into the world feeling proud of the way they were born and empowered to advocate for their own dignity and that of other cleft-affected individuals.
Cleft Con New York was no exception. Attendees went home with confidence, pride, and resilience, knowing they are part of a strong, loving, and supportive community.
As always, we like to give the cleft community the final word. The comments below speak for themselves.