With his grandmother by his side, Ryan opened up and told the student team more about his life story.

Editor’s note: The U-Voice student storyteller program trains undergraduate student volunteers how to be reporters during medical missions. They interview patients as well as both medical and nonmedical volunteers, take their portraits, and write up their stories to share with the world.

By KC Lowther, U-Voice student storyteller

The way Ryan dances, it’s like he has a fire lit from within.

On the snap of a snare and in sync with the thumping beat of the music, the dancer emerges on stage in much in the same smooth, slow way that smoke rises from a flame. The 24-year-old smolders on every step, and every pop, churn and bend are sparks of passion.

Born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, Ryan combined his passion for dance with his compassion for others as he and his team, The Exporters, showed off their choreography titled “ThisAbility” on the show “World of Dance: Philippines.”

“My purpose is to inspire people who are like me and let them know that it’s never a hindrance to reach our dreams in life,” Ryan said. He received his first lip and palate surgeries before turning 4, and he said he learned to live with a unilateral lip scar and hair lip.

Before his debut on “World of Dance,” Ryan made his income as a street magician and didn’t believe he would be able to afford another lip revision surgery. He came from a loving family, and even though he was bullied his entire life for having a cleft condition, he never let it stop him from following his dreams. 

If anything, this only fueled the fire in his heart. He has used the stage as a platform to empower others.

After his shining debut, he got an unexpected phone call from an Operation Smile supporter in the Philippines, who told Ryan about the organization’s medical mission in Cebu. The thought of finally being able to speak clearly after so many years drove Ryan to do whatever he could to get himself to the hospital where the medical mission would be held. It became a safe space, Ryan said, where he saw so many more young people who had the same condition as him.

“I felt like I was in a community where no one will judge you for who you are, and that’s the most comfortable feeling ever in my life,” Ryan said.

After a thorough assessment from the Operation Smile medical team and one last emotional dance as a send-off to his old self, it was time for Ryan to receive his surgery. It was now the surgeon’s turn to perform.

The following week, Ryan went on to win second place at World of Dance Manila competition and his team, The Exporters, made it to the third round of “World of Dance: Philippines.”

“To Operation Smile Philippines, thank you for giving us hope,” he said.

KC is from Johannesburg, South Africa, and has been involved with Operation Smile for three years. She attended a medical mission in Malawi in 2017 as a health care educator. She’s studying law at the University of South Africa.