Seven years ago, 11-year-old Christelle climbed the gangway of the Africa Mercy with her mom. A cleft lip and palate had stolen her self-confidence, and she had felt like an outcast as she hid from stares and jeers. Many emotions …excitement, nervousness, fear of the unknown … raced through her mind as she took each step. With hands gripped together tightly, Christelle and her mom hoped and prayed for a miracle as they stepped onto the ship and put their trust in the care of strangers.

holds a “before” photo of herself, 7 years after receiving free surgery to correct her cleft lip.

Now, Christelle is 18, and her big brown eyes light up as she smiles and greets us during a very special visit to her small village in Abomey, Benin. She’s not afraid to look straight into the camera lens as we capture some “after” photos (albeit seven years later). She and her family – along with many villagers – welcome us warmly and share how life has been since they first met Mercy Ships.

Her parents sought free surgery for their daughter when the Africa Mercy docked in Benin in 2009. Her mother, Bernadette, says,

“She was the subject of mockery for the other children, and, because of that, she was very ashamed to go to school.”

And Bernadette was even more worried for her daughter’s physical health. Because of the malformed tissue in Christelle’s mouth and lip, she couldn’t eat or drink properly.

“I cannot even describe how I was feeling,” adds Bernadette.

Watching Christelle now, all grown up and giggling with friends, it’s hard to believe this is the same girl her mother describes from years ago. But Christelle hasn’t forgotten what it was like growing up.

“Before the surgery, I was often crying because the other children insulted me,” she says. “At school, I was very ashamed. If I hadn’t had the surgery, I wouldn’t have been able to continue school. After having the surgery, I went back to school with assurance. I was happy to go back and learn things.”

Christelle stands with her parents, 7 years after receiving free surgery to correct her cleft lip.

Now Christelle is in high school and has plans for her future. She’s considering becoming a gendarme (the French word for police officer). She loves going to classes and takes an interest in physics, French, history and geography. Of course, she no longer has any problems eating or drinking and enjoys all the local foods.

The villagers surround us as we listen and watch this young woman’s story unfold. And, in a strange way, it becomes a story we all share – between Christelle’s family, the village, and Mercy Ships.

“My life has changed because I did not look like this before the surgery. I’m soooooo happy, and my heart is filled with joy!” exclaims Christelle.

Bernadette adds with gratitude,

“Mercy Ships has been everything for my daughter. As her mother, I couldn’t do anything. When I look at her today, my heart is at peace. And I want to say thank you for that.”