Growing up is never easy. Those typical ‘teenage years’ where everyone expects shouting rallies and slamming doors suddenly become reality for many parents. I was never into all that, I seemed to have other, more important things to worry about. My name is Danielle Keohane and I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. Sounds like a confession I suppose! I’m not going to pretend I’m completely happy and proud of my cleft, but I’m no longer shamed of it, which has got to be a good thing!
As a CLAPA volunteer, I came to a slight dilemma when I was first starting out; I needed to change the way I thought about myself, otherwise I’d be a class A hypocrite preaching about self-belief and confidence – something I definitely do not want to be! CLAPA has helped me immensely over the years; before I was born, my mum was supported by them and all through my operations and whatnot into adolescence, they’ve always been there. It was the volunteering, however, that really saw a change in the way I thought. I was, and always have been, very eager to improve the lives and confidence of other young people with a cleft, and in order to do so, I ended up going on my own sub-conscious journey; learning slowly how to deal with everyday situations that stressed me out no end before.
A common problem, for example, among people with clefts is staring: people quite literally scrutinising your face, trying to figure out “what’s wrong with you” and often then going on to make some unnecessary comment, etc. Since planning a workshop for a CLAPA event back in May of 2014, I was forced to think of realistic ways to deal with such problems (short of walking away with my tail between my legs). Quite often, if you can have the confidence to look straight at the ‘starer,’ they get embarrassed and look away; it can be that simple. Through rationalising with myself about these tiny little details, I was able to confidently deliver a session for a few young people on ‘how to cope’ and actually received emails from parents expressing their thanks for such a genuine and confidence-enhancing workshop.
No doubt, every single member of CLAPA has a huge part to play in the journeys of many children and families, but I do think it is important to have volunteers that actually have cleft lip and/or palate themselves – something we are seeing more and more of now. This is not because children are closed-minded or because volunteers who do not have clefts do anything wrong, but because of that connection that you have with someone when they know you know. You know what they have been through, you know how much it can hurt, and I really think loss of the feeling that you are alone is the first step towards feeling better about yourself.
When I was asked to write this article, having only been given the title, I wasn’t entirely sure what to write! Although, I was determined to be honest, and I can honestly say that CLAPA is as good as a life-saver. As cliché as you want to call me, growing up is hard, and I’m still in the process; with my eighteenth birthday fast approaching I am looking forward to starting my own life, and to continuing to work with CLAPA as much as they’ll let me to carry on the fantastic, and absolutely essential, work that they do.