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20 Years of Hope: Our 1st Cleft Exchange, Dr. Padilla, and Sydney & Reagan

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In late 2003, when Love Without Boundaries was just a few months old as a foundation, we were approached by a medical team that wanted to set up a cleft surgery mission to China. We never in a million years would have attempted something as complex as sending a team of physicians to a foreign country in our first year as a foundation…but this medical group wanted to go, and they told us they would handle all the details. So we agreed to make arrangements for a hospital in which to do the surgeries. CEO Amy Eldridge flew to China in February of 2004, ironed out all the details with the hospital, signed a contract, and contacted 12 orphanages to have them send children. Everything was set.

And then the unthinkable happened. Just two months before the mission, the medical team backed out. We had children that we knew were from rural orphanages who would not get surgical care unless we came, and we had a signed contract with a hospital to pay for the surgery block time. We had a large pile of photos of the kids needing surgery, and knew we had little people counting on us to come.

Toddler with unilateral cleft lip

Phone calls flew back and forth between our board members as we agonized over what we should do. Should we cancel? Should we attempt this on our own? Where would we find doctors with just two months left when most mission trips are planned almost a year out? With each new phone call, we had a different answer. It was off…it was on…the kids needed us…we couldn’t handle this!

Amy Eldridge recalls: Finally, I just went to my car and sat there and started crying. And I turned it all over to God. I said, “If you want these babies healed, then we need a miracle.”

Baby with unilateral cleft lip wearing a pink bib

Amy continues, The very next day I received a phone call from Dr. John Padilla, who told me he had heard we were heading to China and if there was any way on a future trip he could go, he wanted to volunteer his services. He told me of how he had helped kids from Kosovo, Mexico, and South America, so I took a deep breath and said, “Could you go in eight weeks?” He laughed, said, “Let me call you back,” and within an hour he had cleared his schedule and committed not only himself but his surgical team. All at his own expense.

The logistics of putting that trip together in eight weeks was very difficult. There simply isn’t space to describe all the details, but it was intense, to say the least. John was amazing, and when we would call in a panic, he would always kindly reassure us that it would all be okay.

The Cleft Exchange Begins

The first day of the surgeries was very tense as we tried to figure out the schedule and who was on which surgical team, all in two different languages. While the whole team of doctors both from the US and China stood around in the chaos, John picked up the first baby and said, “Okay, let’s go,” and he walked back to the operating room leaving all of us with our mouths open. But then we took a deep breath and hurried after him, knowing it was time to begin.

Cleft surgery team performing surgery

The first little one to receive her gift of a new smile was baby Sydney. Next up was her twin sister, Reagan.

Twin baby girls with cleft lip lie on a blanket

These beautiful little girls had been born prematurely, AND with the added special needs of cleft lip and palate. They had come into orphanage care as newborns, and thankfully they were transferred to New Hope Foundation (NHF) in Beijing where they received specialized care, nutritious formula delivered by specially-made cleft bottles, and plenty of love from the NHF staff.

Both girls’ surgeries went beautifully, and they were able to return to New Hope to recover under the watchful eyes of their nannies.

The benefits of corrective lip surgery were two-fold: 1) feedings became easier now that the girls could fully close their lips around their bottles, and 2) they now had the chance to be registered for adoption and find a forever family. And THAT is exactly what happened!

Twin girls with cleft lip

Sydney and Reagan

Right around the time of the twins’ birth, a wonderful couple in the United States arrived home from a trip to China with a deep desire to adopt from that country. After completing all the necessary home visits and paperwork, Grace and Donald were approved to adopt not one, but TWO children which was pretty much unheard of at that time.

A scant seven days after their pre-approval, their adoption agency called with some amazing news: They had received a list of children approved for adoption, and on the list were one-year-old twins with repaired cleft lips. Would they be willing to accept this referral of twins? Of course, the answer was a resounding YES, and three months later the family was united.

Toddler girls post cleft lip repair wearing matching dresses

The twins’ father, Donald, recently filled us in on how the girls are doing. The LWB cleft exchange was a watershed moment for Sydney and Reagan that changed their lives profoundly.

Today, Sydney and Reagan are Juniors at The University of North Florida (UNF), in Jacksonville, Florida. They are both members of the Alpha Kappa Delta Phi, an Asian-interest Sorority at UNF, who this year have chosen Love Without Boundaries, in honor of Sydney and Reagan, to be the charity the sorority will seek to support in 2024.

Twin girls in matching volleyball uniforms hold a volleyball

Throughout their lives, both ladies have been standouts, scholastically and athletically, at every level. Today, Sydney, a UNF President’s Honor Roll Recipient, is enrolled in the Business Management Honors Program at UNF’s Coggin Business School. She is double majoring in Finance and Business Management with aspirations of leading a company as its CEO. Reagan, also an Honor Roll Student, is studying Kinesiology at UNF’s Brooks College of Health with aspirations of completing the Brooks Doctorate program in Physical Therapy (DPT) and becoming a practicing Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Teen twin girls stand in front of Christmas lights

Remembering Dr. John Padilla

Sydney and Reagan’s lives were forever transformed by a whole slew of little miracles, and the kindness and generosity of one exceptional man: Dr. John Padilla. Amy Eldridge describes him as “one of the most compassionate, humble, and generous men I have ever had the honor of meeting.”

Tragically, a few months after that first cleft exchange, John lost his life in a plane accident. All of us who were given the gift of working with him will never, ever forget his passion for children in need.

Compassionate doctor holds a baby following cleft lip repair

Amy recalls: John had made a promise to me that he would travel every year to China, and he was working with us on coming up with a model to form a cleft center in China, providing free medical care so that parents would never have to make the agonizing decision to abandon a baby born with cleft. He talked about that dream with me on our second day in China. He kept saying, “What if we tried this? What if we made a regional center?” and I kept saying, “John, you have to realize that we are a small foundation and we pay all of our own expenses.” And he would smile that incredible smile and say, “Amy…dream big, dream big, dream big.”

A cleft medical team performing surgery

As I write this, I remember a man who was truly one of my heroes. A man who loved children and understood that by giving from the heart, stepping out of our comfort zone, and taking risks to care about these tiny little faces that many of us only know in pictures — we really can change lives and bring hope to children all around this earth. John lived his life believing that the only real failure was not trying. He believed with all his heart that if we just try, one life at a time, to show others that there is hope and that others do care, the world truly will be a better place.

A man and woman standing in a Chinese restaurant

Dr. Padilla, we will never forget all that you did for children throughout the world. Every child healed on one of our cleft surgery exchanges is in your honor and carries a piece of your legacy.

Dream big, dream big, dream big.

John, we promise we’re trying, and we will never forget you.

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