When you travel to Sumatra, you’ll be greeted by the smiliest people you’ve ever met. The warm welcome and enthusiasm from the locals is one of the things that makes travellers fall in love with Sumatra and keeps them coming back for more.
But for many children in Sumatra, a smile doesn’t come so easily. As many as 1 in 500 kids are born with cleft lip and palate deformities.
With millions of families living below the poverty line, and millions more barely getting by, even basic healthcare is a struggle. Finding the money to pay for the simple operation to correct the deformity is impossible.
This is where the superstar organisation The Children of Sumatra come in. Their mission is to provide “plastic surgery, dentistry, financial support, and medical care for cleft suffering children across Sumatra to develop a better quality of life” for them and their families.
We are totally in awe of the beautiful souls running and working with The Children of Sumatra, and once you read about everything they’ve done, you will be too!
We chatted with co-founder Katie Pavett to find out about their work.
Falling In Love With Sumatra: How it All Began
Katie caught the travel bug young, leaving home to explore the world at 17 years old. She worked any odd job she could find to stay on the move.
Twelve years later, she settled down with her husband, who she met on the gorgeous island of Pulau Weh, at the very top of Sumatra. The couple bought a piece of land on the island, and their new neighbour was a ten-year-old girl suffering from cleft lip.
The family couldn’t afford to fix it, so Katie and her husband decided to raise money to help.
“The next thing we knew there was another young girl suffering from cleft lip and palate in the next village, we had to help her also. Before we knew it, we discovered there were so many children suffering with this disability that we decided to do whatever we could to help them.”
Twenty-odd years later, and they have done precisely that. Not only have they completed more than 1000 surgeries, but their work has also changed their lives. Nine years ago, Katie and her husband became parents to a son; a baby with a cleft lip and palate who had been abandoned.
Dealing With Disaster in Sumatra
From that first child in 2001, The Children of Sumatra helped an incredible 48 children get surgery, and became a registered charity. That’s no small feat anywhere in the world, let alone a place lacking in infrastructure with a massive variety of issues to tackle.
However, everything ground to a halt in 2004 following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the Aceh province.
Katie shared her family’s mindblowing story of this time.
“Just before the tsunami struck Aceh in 2004, I was still in the UK working; my husband returned before me as we had many children in need of surgery. My husband had helped to arrange around 18 operations in Medan; his next plan was to return to Aceh to see his family.
He was booked on a bus for the 24th of December. Just before they were about to leave, they heard of a young girl who was 14 and had never had surgery. They decided to cancel the bus, and this young girl received her operation on the 25th of December in Medan.
This young girl saved my husband’s life; the village he was on his way to was destroyed, only the mosque was left standing. Nearly all my husbands extended family died in this village due to the tsunami.
I will be forever grateful to this amazing young woman who is now happily married with a child.”
Following the tsunami, priorities obviously changed for all involved. For the next two years, their energy was focused on helping with problems caused by the tsunami.
“This did involve a lot of operations, but not for cleft. We were so involved; we helped fund houses, shops, restaurants, lots of water and sanitation projects, school uniform projects.”
Eventually, the conditions in Aceh were improving, and helping cleft children was back on the agenda.
What are the Biggest Challenges in Running The Children of Sumatra?
“There will always be challenges when running a charity here in Sumatra; health care is not nearly up to a standard that we would like, and the conditions can be very bad sometimes.
We come up against corruption, politics and general brick walls, but the most important thing is to stay positive and remember it is all about helping the children, we can only do what we can do, and we try to make the best out of every situation.”
The Future For Children of Sumatra
Currently, 100 children every year receive surgery. They’ve also expanded their work into jaw surgery and orthodontist treatment for some of the severe cases. On top of all this, they also help out other charities with club foot, polio, and burn victims, as well as doing work totally unrelated to cleft deformities.
If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it truly is. The work, the planning, and the organization involved in achieving these goals is admirable.
Why Sumatra is Amazing
Sumatra really does draw in the most incredible people, and many seem to develop a deep connection with this incredible destination very quickly. We asked Katie what she loves most about Sumatra, and where her favourite places are.
“Sumatra is a truly amazing island; the people are so friendly, as well as having some mind-blowing scenery. I love the simplicity of the people and knowing how happy they can be even if they don’t have much – it reminds me what is important in this crazy world that we live in.”
“Ketambe is so special and a quiet, hidden paradise where orangutans live in the wild. Lake Toba is just so vast, and this is the area that we mainly find our cleft children – a huge lake that takes you days to drive around.
Pulau Weh will always be in my heart, as my husband comes from there; amazing snorkelling, diving, beaches, and lovely people.
But most of all, in my line of work I get to travel into the unknown areas of Sumatra looking for children in need of our help. These places have never been seen by tourists, and their lives have never changed for centuries; the true unseen Sumatra is a very wild paradise that I am so blessed to be part of.”
How You Can Help Sumatran Children
The Children of Sumatra are an organization that seems to fly under the radar. They do incredible work, without making a fuss about it or blowing their own trumpet.
We want to give them the recognition they deserve and help them continue bringing the smiles back to Sumatra for as long as possible.
If you feel the same, please consider making a donation. Money goes a lot further in Sumatra than you’d expect; so don’t assume the small amount you can afford won’t be enough.
Direct debits to make regular donations are appreciated, or small payments as you can afford. With regular payments, they can know exactly how many children they are able to help from month to month.
“Donations are so important to us as without them none of our work would be possible. We just work from personal donations, and so far, we have managed to help every child that we have found who is able to undergo surgery.”
Visit their website to donate:
Or follow them on facebook media for more amazing updates:
Huge thanks for Katie for taking time out of her CRAZY busy life to talk to us about The Children of Sumatra.
All photos courtesy of Children of Sumatra.
We meet so many incredible people during our journies throughout Sumatra and have endless stories to tell.
Our People of Sumatra feature will regularly feature stories of both locals and visitors making a difference in their own way. If you know of an individual or organisation doing cool things in Sumatra, let us know – we’d love to hear about them!