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Documentary looks at cleft palates in Philippines

Granite Bay grad had two adopted siblings with defect
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Lindsey Rowe believes every child deserves a beautiful and healthy future, which is why she’s lending her creative talents to making a documentary film about cleft palates.

Cleft deformities can cause breathing, eating and speech complications unless repaired through surgery, and it’s a health issue Rowe, 29, knows about firsthand. The Granite Bay High School graduate’s two adopted siblings were born with cleft palates.

Her brother Hon and sister FuMei are both 8 years old and were adopted from China. They underwent corrective surgery to repair what could have led to lifelong health problems and ridicule. While Rowe has witnessed the struggle that children with facial deformities and their families endure, she’s also been privy to the successes.

“I have also experienced the resilience and spirit of those same children who are able to overcome their challenges and I have been inspired by them to bring awareness to this cause,” Rowe said.

She and three other pro-bono filmmakers are making a feature-length documentary film called “Gwapa (Beautiful),” which follows two Filipino families’ struggles for a healthy future for their children born with cleft palates.

In the United States, cleft palate and cleft lip is the most common birth defect, affecting one in every 600 newborns, according to the Cleft Palate Foundation. The causes are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

American babies often have access to surgery, dental and orthodontic care, and speech therapy, unlike children in developing countries, where cleft palates typically go unrepaired. Every year, 4,000 to 5,000 Filipino children are born with a cleft deformity.

Thirsty Girl Films aims to bring awareness to this correctable birth defect and the need for free reconstructive surgeries in the Philippines.

“Just one surgery can change a child’s life forever,” Rowe said.

She and her fellow filmmakers, along with 50 medical professionals from Davis-based Faces of Tomorrow, will be on an island province of the Philippines called Bohol today through Jan. 24 to revisit children for their second round of filming. The first half of the film was shot on location last year.

That means time away from Rowe’s job. She now works in Hollywood as a publicist for an entertainment marketing and public relations agency. But it’s worth it for Rowe who calls the documentary her “passion project.”

The director of “Gwapa (Beautiful),” Meg Pinsonneault, filmed the 2009 and 2011 missions of Faces of Tomorrow, which is a nonprofit organization of health professionals who go on trips to provide free medical and surgical services to kids with facial deformities.

“I met Meg through a mutual friend and fell in love with the project because (of my) two adopted siblings with clefts,” Rowe said. “Serendipitously the doctors from the organization we are following performed cleft repairs on my siblings.”

Rowe’s dad, Scott Rowe, of Roseville, said he’s proud of his daughter for aspiring to improve the lives of children.

“We are truly proud of Lindsey for her involvement to raise awareness and help facilitate this great work,” he said. “(She) brings joy to our family, her work and now to the bigger world.”

He said the cleft palate condition “carries pretty severe ramifications personal and social, until it’s fixed” and once repaired, the child can live a full and normal life.

The film crew fundraised most of their budget through IndieGoGo, an Internet crowdfunding platform for creative projects. They raised more than $12,000 in 21 days through donations.

The group needs another $10,000 for post production, including editing, color correction, sound design and score composition. They hope to complete the film by June and hit the festival market.

“Since many people in wealthy countries aren’t aware of the problem, this documentary will shed light on a culture hardly explored and how its poorest deal with personal strife,” Rowe said.

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.

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For more information about “Gwapa (Beautiful),” visit www.gwapafilm.com.