Brave faces and a show of thanks for charity’s emotional support

Emily Donaldson and mum Laura
Emily Donaldson and mum Laura
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Emily Donaldson was bullied because she was born with a cleft. Now she wants to help the charity which is helping her and her family. Catherine Scott reports.

“I still get angry but I am getting there,” says 10-year-old Emily Donaldson.

Emily was angry because she was being bullied at school and also because she struggled to make herself understood.

“When she was seven she suddenly changed from a caring chid with a big hear to this angry child, we struggled to control,” says mum Laura, from Sheffield. “She just wouldn’t talk about what was bothering her. It took ages for her to eventually tell me that she was being bullied.

Emily was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palette which was discovered when Laura went for her 20 week scan.

“I think I went into shock. I’d had an ectopic pregnancy before Emily and I just wanted everything to go smoothly with this pregnancy, but that just didn’t happen. In fact nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I think I went into a kind of mourning.”

Laura, and her now ex-husband, were told that Emily would need to undergo a large number of operations as her condition meant that she had no hard or soft palate and although she had a nose there was just one large nostril.

She under went her first surgery at just 14 weeks old. Since then she has had a further seven operations with more to follow. Laura struggled with the constant comments from people, asking what was wrong with her baby,

“People would look in the pram and pull faces and then ask what was wrong with her. I got very angry and upset.”

No one really knows what causes cleft lip and palate, although when Laura decided to try for a brother or sister for Emily she did undergo some genetic testing, but they could find nothing. Twins, Alice and Freya, now six, were both born healthy after trouble-free pregnancy, although Laura did suffer severe postnatal depression after they were born.

But it wasn’t until Emily was about seven that her personality suddenly changed.

“She just turned overnight into this dark, negative, angry child we just didn’t recognise. I knew she had struggled to fit in at school so I went in as a parent helper to see if I could act as a go-between to help her.

“Emily is sometimes difficult to understand and when she tries to speak can spit which the children and teachers found difficult to understand.

“They thought she was doing it on purpose and she’d get into trouble. I explained to them that it was part of Emily’s condition.”

But it took some time before Emily eventually told Laura that she was being bullied.

“There was this boy who called me names and he was really mean,” say Emily.

Things did get better when the family moved and Emily went to a different school, but still she was suffering from angry outbursts. Laura had asked the doctors at the Trent Cleft Lip and Palette Team at Nottingham City Hospital where Emily had to go for treatment for help and, although they said they would refer Emily, it took too long.

“In the end I went on the web and found Changing Faces and spoke to someone straight away. I couldn’t believe it when they said they had a service in Sheffield and that there was someone specifically for young people.”

Together, mum and daughter met Ahmina, the Children, Young People and Families’ Practitioner at the Yorkshire and the Humber Centre in Sheffield. As a specialist practitioner, Ahmina supported the family to develop a more positive attitude to Emily’s visible difference. She also taught the family techniques to handle everyday social situations better.

“The difference she has made to all of us is massive,” says Laura. “She has helped me understand that when people stare at Emily it is because they are curious and don’t necessarily intend to be mean. She has really helped Emily. Ahmina would phone or Skype her or we would go to her office.” After six months at Changing Faces, Emily now feels she is able to deal with bullying and can stand up for herself.

Both Laura and Emily are much more positive about the future and are very grateful to Changing Faces who have made a huge difference to their lives.

“I just could not cope with how things were, it was just awful. I didn’t know where to turn until I found Changing Faces. I am really, really grateful. We are getting our old Emily back. Even though I am now a single parent we are coping. She has a big heart and is a lovely big sister. There are still times when she gets angry but I now understand that is when she is anxious about something. ” Emily and Laura have now decided to try to repay Changing Faces by speaking publically about their experience and urging people to vote for the centre to win a National Lottery award after it was selected as one of seven projects up for the title of best Health Project. The winning project will receive a £2,000 cash prize to spend on the project.

Carly Swann, 32, has received ongoing support from Changing Faces to help her deal with a facial palsy which she developed suddenly at the age of 14. “I had been searching for 18 years for someone to talk to, for someone to understand just how my face had affected me. If I’d been aware of Changing Faces when my facial palsy started things could have been very different.”

• To vote visit www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards or call 0844 836 9698. Voting runs until midnight on Wednesday.

Twitter@ypcscott