ACPA Family Services

Cleft-Craniofacial Community Stories

Lissa Holmes

Lissa served as the Cleft Palate Foundation’s Cleftline Manager from 2004 until 2005.

My Journey of Self-Discovery:
Becoming the Person I was Meant to Be

I have had an extraordinary life up until this point in time, and I feel as though I am just beginning to come into my own; just beginning to understand who I am and where my place is in this world.

My name is Lissa Holmes, and I am the Cleftline Manager. As many of you know I share something in common with you in that I was born with a cleft lip. I wanted to take a moment to share a little of my journey with you in the hopes that it may give you some comfort and inspire you to challenge your children to reach their full potential.

I struggled for many years to understand why I was born with a cleft. There were many times when I was growing up that I felt angry and resentful of the fact that I had been born with a cleft lip. I’ll never forget the first time I noticed that I looked different from everybody else. I was sure I was the only one in the world who had been born with a cleft lip. It was an indescribable feeling of loneliness and isolation — a feeling that I still carry with me today at times. I remember feeling quite confused, and carrying around a belief that I had somehow done something wrong to be born with a cleft lip. I also remember that I felt as though I had no one to talk to; when I was born, 31 years ago, the CLEFTLINE service wasn’t established yet and my parents had little support themselves. It took me years to fully understand that there was a reason why I had been born with a cleft, and that it was a gift, not a curse as I had treated it for so long.

I feel very privileged and humbled to be able to reach out to others through my work as the Cleftline Manager. Although my path has not always been clear there have always been stepping stones guiding my way; influencing decisions I made as to which way to go. I began a process of self discovery while I was in college when I sought counseling. I had been unhappy for a long time, but when I could no longer hide my unhappiness from my friends and family I knew that I had to do something. Although I did not realize it at the time this was a pivotal moment that would drastically change the course of my life’s path. Up until this point I was going to be an art historian working in a museum. However, once I started counseling and gained self-awareness I realized that I wanted something more from my career than studying beautiful paintings – I wanted to help others on their own journey of self discovery. It wasn’t until a chance meeting with a father of a baby who had been born with a cleft lip and palate that I knew how I could help others.

This meeting with this father was an experience unlike any other I had ever had. I was absolutely shocked to have met someone who had experience with a cleft; I was twenty-two years old at the time and had never met another person with a cleft. It was like a light bulb had been turned on inside a room that had been dark for twenty-two years; I felt eerily calm, but at the same time very energized. This energy served as the engine that would motivate me to make some very bold moves in the following months. The father invited me to go and visit his wife and son, so with my stomach filled with nerves I went to meet the mother and their baby born with cleft lip and palate. Once I met this family and began to learn about cleft lip and palate, I became obsessed with gaining knowledge about this birth defect. Now it was not just something that had happened to me alone, but was something that I had in common with a baby boy and I had established a connection with this family.

Another milestone was reached when this mother gave me the name of their Cleft Lip and Palate team and told me that I should call the nurse coordinator to arrange to observe the clinic. I began observing this clinic, and through this experience learned that social workers served on cleft palate teams. I was ecstatic; I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to with my career, so I applied to graduate schools for a Masters in Social Work determined to someday be a social worker on a cleft palate/craniofacial team.

It was during this period of time that I also applied to be a student member of ACPA, and was accepted. I was accepted into the Masters of Social Work program at the University of South Carolina and graduated in 1999 with my MSW degree. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be to find a job as a social worker on a cleft/ craniofacial team. I ran into many obstacles along the way; either the teams already had social workers on them or they didn’t have space on their team or funding for a social worker. Although at times I was discouraged I never lost sight of my goal, and so I took other jobs that I believed would help me achieve my goal. These jobs included everything from serving as a social worker in a psychiatric hospital to a residential care facility for troubled children to working for a home health agency where I delivered social work services to the elderly in their homes.

Although I always had the goal in mind of working with children and families who had been affected by cleft lip and palate I found that increasingly the jobs that I was working in were taking me further from this goal not closer to achieving it. So, I took a risk and quit my job with the home health agency so that I could pursue this 100%. The year before I had attended the ACPA Annual Meeting in Asheville, NC in an effort to make connections with as many professionals in the field as I could to help me get the job I felt I was meant for. It was at this meeting where I stumbled upon another milestone when I literally ran into the Parent Conference as I was heading out of the hotel to attend the last day of the professional conference. Intrigued by what I saw, I again changed my course and decided to attend the Parent Conference instead. This proved to be an important day for me in more ways than I was aware at the time; I was face to face with not only one person who had been affected with a cleft but an entire room full, and for the first time in my life I felt understood. I also felt empowered; I remember listening to the speakers introduce themselves, and when Elizabeth Kramer was introduced as the Cleftline Manager I thought to myself,” That is a job that I would be perfect for.” Upon resigning from my position at the home health agency I wrote an e-mail that I considered at the time to be a shot in the dark; this e-mail was addressed to the executive director of ACPA/CPF asking if there were any openings at the National Office. You can imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail back from her stating that there was, and a job description was attached for my review. When I read the job description, it was as if the job had been written for me. I interviewed with her and was offered the job; and as they say, the rest is history.

I hope all of you who read my story will recognize it for what it is- a story of perseverance and sheer determination. I truly believe there was a purpose behind my being born with a cleft lip. All of the struggles that I faced growing up both internal and external led me to the insights and wisdom that I hope to share with each of you. It is because I was able to work through all of those issues related to my cleft that I have finally been able to come to a place in my life where I feel a greater sense of self confidence than I have ever known before; a place where I have accepted myself for who I am- cleft and all. I think that the key to all of this has been accepting my cleft as a part of who I am and recognizing that it does not define me as a person. My journey of self-discovery is not over; everyday I learn more about who I am and who I want to become, and about what I will need to do to reach the goals I have for myself. As I do this I will share my experiences with you in the hopes that you will somehow be inspired on your own journey towards self-discovery.

Last Updated: Jun 24, 2010