Belgian Beauties

  I will forever have trouble finding the right words to explain the love I have for the country of Belgium. The beer, the chocolate, the waffles, the frites, and especially the people. When I was planning my European tour, I never even thought to include Belgium. Not because I didn't like the country by any means, I just had no idea what was really here I guess? I was completely unaware of the active cleft community up until I received a message from the magicifent Nathalie Kalb. Then this unexpected series of events began to unravel. A Facebook group was made; funds began or pour in; and a schedule was formed. The amount of people becoming increasingly involved was astounding. Before I knew it there were over 20 people attempting to book a spot! I never would have guessed that Belgium would have been this proactive and determined to bring 1IN700 to their part of Europe; but the next thing I knew I was on my way to meet these people. 
 
 

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Having a local (Nathalie grew up in Brussels) to give me a look into the real history of Belgium, the city of Brussels, and give me a detailed explaination on the history of it all was unlike any walking tour you could have paid for. Not only did she have personal ties to all of these locations, but she knew so many random facts about the city itself. Things I wouldn't expect for just anyone to know. Nathalie strategically planned my days so I could also sightsee around the city. Doing the city center for three days, Waterloo another, and then the Atomium ( 102 meter tall construction of a carbon atom). I learned several things about each location while also getting to photograph some truly incredible individuals. 
 
 

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  As I arrived in Miami and began my mini vacation with my big brother and his girlfriend, I started to talk about my experiences and (my) kids that I got to meet across the pond. Rattling off names and details about each and every experience, Tina (brothers girlfriend) pointed something out I hadn't even realized:
 
 "You know all of their names off the top of your head?"
 
  I have been asked thousands of things when it comes to this project. All of which I can answer 6 different ways to prove the same point. When Tina asked me this, I paused... She was right. I just knew them because they all have given me a piece of their heart by contributing to this project. I was blown away by their courage on a daily basis and felt blessed to have the opportunity to share my vision and perception of them with the world. How could I ever forget them? 

It's great to be back in Los Angeles, but I am going to miss my Belgium buddies tremendously. 

  Almost all of the people involved in "1IN700" strike some sort of emotional cord with me right off the bat. Whether it's something I can relate to, or sharing their own experience in which I have empathy for, they are all equally impactful. Then I am messaged by a woman named Nathalie. This woman, time and time again, surprised me with her resilience and strength. Nathalie has two beautiful children, one of which (Oscar who you can find in a couple of my Instagram posts) who has the exact same cleft as I do. Little man was one of the best babies too, just so smiley and happy all of the time. It was also beautiful to watch Nathalie and her husband Ben with both of the kids; sooo incredibly obvious how much they adored these two munchkins. 
  Nathalie is pretty much THE reason I was able to make Belgium a stop on my tour at all. She asked me what they had to do to get me there and if there was anything she could help with. It all made sense when I met her and she told me what she did for work, she's a project manager, because my entire schedule was lined up and in writing. Oh, she also speaks so many languages that she was my translator through my entire stay! Did I mention she was also balancing two kids under the age of five through several LONG days with me? She is a literal superhero and I couldn't have had more fun with her. Nathalie made sure that after my shoots, or during lunch, that I was able to take in REAL Belgium. Brussels is where she grew up and knows that city like the back of her hand. A lot of those photos you see above was from our many adventures around the city center of Brussels. 
  I will soon go into more detail as to why my connection with Nathalie and these families struck so deep with me, but for now all of you readers can ooooo and ahhhhh at the adorable cuties in my photos above. I am going to do the same. 
 
 

Je t'aime Paris

  It's hard for me to even fathom that I have been in Europe almost two months already. It seems like I have had the most wonderful and the most terrifying ventures in such a short amount of time. I have learned so much of myself; what I can handle, what I want with my time here, just how social I can be when I am faced with the solo traveler loneliness that tends to set in from time to time. I have also learned that this idea that I can do this IS truly insane. The looks I get from people when I tell them exactly what "1IN700" is and what I am doing are kind of hilarious. I have learned that there truly is no predicting what comes next with all of this. All of that said and done, things have still continued to progress in such unimaginable ways; expectations always being surpassed and everything is always okay. One of my long time benefactors, Daniel Delgado is one I have to thank for some of this. Always, always coming through for me in a pinch. His words being: "Call me anytime you need help. You know I got you." Or Jenn Cook who messaged me saying: "If you need anything, ever, call me and I will see what I can do. Day or night." It's people like that and like Michelle Tonacchio who consistently flood my heart and soul with a love I have always longed for. And any other space is filled by the thousands of those across the world reaching out their hand to pull me onward. 

  I left Paris with more than 10 entry photos for "1IN700," which is much more than I expected considering the language barrier. Google translate was my best friend for sure this leg in Europe. I did however find myself not needing any translator to see the smile light up on their face when I showed each person their photo. Paris was short, but Paris was beautiful not just for "1IN700" but for me personally too.

  Ya see, Paris has always been one of those places for me. One of those places I HAD to visit. At heart, I am a hopeless romantic, waiting for that one day intimate love will enter my world as I see it finding all those around me. Often times when I meet cleft affected individuals that are around my age, I almost always have to ask about dating. I find myself asking questions like: "Has dating been as tough for you as it has for me?!" or "Do you find yourself insecure in even the perfect situation?" Often times I find that we have all struggled with the same exact things. And when in the "City of Love" how can one NOT think about this?? The canals lit with the afternoon sun; soft music being played on a saxophone as I walk across a bridge; the pure love between the couple holding hands and staring into each others eyes outside of a cafe...all of this seemed like a dream. Like MY dream. I have had a few "serious" relationships, but in only a couple of them have I truly been the real Zack in. Some of them I found myself not needing to hide who I was, ever. Until I began "1IN700" I had no idea part of this insecurity stemmed from not feeling beautiful because of my scars. I felt the illogical fear that just being ME would never be enough for someone. I am always one to talk about not dwelling on the past and focusing on now and what is to come. But I cannot help but look back and thank my past lovers for teaching me lessons of self love. To the one who cheated: Thank you for making me find the strength to pick myself up. To the one who broke my heart worse than all the rest: Thank you for letting me go so I could find my life purpose. To the one who wasn't ready to accept his love for me publically: Thank you for teaching me what resilience I have for being out and proud. To the one who left without a word: Thank you for showing me what I am capable of handling when I thought my world had fallen apart.

  To all of my cleft affected warriors out there, we don't always have to hold the shield up. Sometimes, people surprise you and you'll look and notice your walls no more. Even if it is all temporary, I guess what they say is true, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all." It's not without pain, tears, anger, passion, late nights, but all of that is worth it and much, much more than regret. 
 
Choose Love. Always choose love. 

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My new amazing friend (and addition to 1IN700) Eve!! 

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Week 1 - London

After spending a month in New York City and then another 5 days in Washington DC I am once again surprised at just how magnificent this world truly is. From the sunny west coast, to the concrete jungle that is New York City, to our nations capital I am excited every time I enter a new place. I have always been that way too. Ever since I was a little munchkin my imagination and thirst for adventure has always been volcanic in comparison to anyone else. My mind never stops and the possibilities never end. I see travel and opportunity almost as the exact same thing. Now that I have quite literally toured most of the United States, I have taken to the sky once again to meet the international cleft community. I gotta admit though, I am 100% terrified.

I have lived in the comfort of the U.S. Walls for the last 20 years of my life. I don't remember life in rural Germany before moving to the states. I have never been in a situation where I was the only one speaking English. Where I was the tourist.

And now, I am sitting on a WOW Air plane (Icelandic airlines) where I am the minority. Where the safety instructions are read in English second. Where everyone has accents, some I have no idea where from. I realize, I have lived in a bubble. I have watched from inside the safe zone that is America and in many ways I am ignorant to how the world works abroad. Now that is all about to change.

 

As I sat down at my gate at Baltimore International, I felt pure panic set in. I was, for the first time in my life, about to lose all sense of purpose and mission because I was scared. I start hearing all of those negative comments people have said to me about the magnitude of this project. It was like I had headphones in and all that was coming out was discouraging rhetoric. I start to write emails to distract myself before I see this tall (Thor looking) man walk in front of me, down the isle of seats I am in and sit directly across from me. He immediately strikes me as some kind of kin. We are both a bit fidgety and by the look of our passports, both very new international travelers...but there is something else. He smiles and guess what I notice. He has a right side unilateral cleft lip and cleft palate. I almost fell on the floor right then and there. If that wasn't God, the universe, or whatever you believe in sending me some sort of sign, then I don't know what could be. I struck up conversation after getting a bit choked up with joy and then, of course, pulled out my camera and photographed him right there in the terminal.

 

As I get on the plane, my nerves don't subside much. Take off is bumpy and it's like my mind is finding every excuse it can to FREAK OUT. I ordered a beer and put myself to sleep. Next thing I know I am opening my eyes 5 hours later to these gorgeous Icelandic flight attendants announcing our final decent into Reykjavik. Whether I was ready or not, my journey had officially begun.

 

We landed at this itty bitty airport just south of that city of Reykjavik at around 5am Iceland time. Which meant it was midnight in New York and 9pm in Los Angeles. The time change was absolutely going to be an adjustment. I was insanely hungry so I searched for anything that looked authentic to my setting but also something I knew I would like. I found this open faced sandwich with arugula, hard boiled eggs, and salmon topped with this honey mustard type of sauce. I grabbed a water off the top shelf and proceeded to check out. Cashed out and thankfully my card worked just fine, but I looked at the total and WOWOWOWOWOWO. $20.93 for a bottle of water and sandwich. At first I was just disappointed in the price (I am always worried about fundraising) but then I took a bite.... it was the most fresh, crisp, and unique tasting sandwich AND water I have ever had. After a couple of minutes and minimal breaths between bites, I realized something... I wasn't scared anymore. My hands weren't trembling with apprehension and I had finally stopped sweating for no reason. I began to feel excitements warm embrace. This is what I have been working towards for two years. This moment is what I have been dreaming about since "1IN700" went from idea to an actual manifestation. I was doing it -- I AM DOING IT!!! And I owe it to the thousands of supporters all around the globe. For sharing my work on their page, for donating whatever it is they can, for sending me pictures of their cleft cuties, and for believing in me. I don't know what comes next after this, heck I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring...but I know that whatever it is, I'll face it head on and I will always know that I have family on every continent that all have my back.

 

 

So much gratitude and love for you all. Europe, here I come!!

 

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  I wrote this blog post while sitting in the terminal waiting for my connecting flight to the U.K. Little did I know that the next few days were going to be one the toughest transitions of my life. I would lose my debit card, I would make the tragic mistake of incorrectly booking my hostel, my phone would die while I was on the tube looking for my new place to stay. I have never felt such exhaustion but I endured. I pushed through and rolled with the punches. I found myself wanting to give in, to throw my hands up and call it quits. Then I discovered this new resilient Zack. I was disappointed in myself for even thinking that for a second. I had all of these people counting on me. Not to mention the fact that I knew I could do this, I was just off to a rough start. I wiped my tears, tightened my back pack straps, and pulled it together. As for my first week in the U.K. I can confidently say, I turned it all around. Not without the help of of other travelers of course.

 

  I met a Brit that has started something called The Pansy Project where he goes around the world planting pansy's in the place of homophobic hate crimes. Not only is this a beautiful initiative, but it is also an international one.

 

  I met an American that was also solo traveling and we spent two days together exploring the city have sharing our world experiences. We spoke about how hardships, our future plans, and how incredibly open minded all of the Europeans we met are. We also talked about how we both are feeling more and more how we may belong abroad.

 

  I was outside of a pub when I stuck up conversation with these very friendly Germans. A rather intoxicated British man was sort of giving me a hard time and would not simply leave me be. This group of beautiful (inside & out) Germans came to my rescue and little did I know this was the start of a wonderful friendship. We spent the next three evenings together celebrating Steffi's birthday, which is why they were on holiday in London. We drank, we laughed, we sang, we connected on a deep level and a kinship was discovered. They all met while working in an advertising agency in Munich where they developed these relationships with each other that was much deeper than the surface. They showed me the true meaning of friendship, brotherhood, and authentic camaraderie. It was so incredible that I decided to go to Munich in two months to celebrate my birthday! 
 
 

 

  To wrap up my first week here in the U.K. I hopped on a coach and headed south to connect with one of my long time social media friends - Ryan Trower. He and his family welcomed me with open arms here in Cornwall. Cornwall is by far one of the most green places I have ever been. I also haven't heard silence quite like this in years. The small town shuts down by 6pm and all you are left with is the soothing sound of soft rain and the crisp, fresh breeze of the coast. Once Ryan and I returned from the Plymouth coach station it became very clear that I was about to have a very nice change of scenery and some wonderful company. Also, I will get to sleep in big comfy bed. This weekend is going to be great.

 

 

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Reunited after 6 years with some old family friends. The Torres family! 

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Steak pasty just became one of my new favorite things in the world.  

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The beautiful Jana - See you in July for my birthday!  

Leaps of faith

   4 days. 4 days until I hop on a flight, short layover in Iceland and then continue on to the U.K. There isn't much else other than pure excitement about this. As soon as my feet hit that British pavement 1IN700 will officially be an international photography project. Hard work, determination, sacrifice, and lots and lots of leaps of faith have brought me to this moment of true revelation. For the first time in my life I will be thousands of miles from everyone I know and love. I will be finally starting this mission of awareness across the pond. It's just me, my camera, my will, and my deep, deep desire to open minds and share stories. I don't know when I will be coming back to the states just yet. My plan changes so much and spontaneity has proven itself incredibly present on this journey. But hey, I am going to run like crazy with it.

   As I look back on the last month in New York I can't help but smile at the hard work, hustle, and evolution of Zack. I was included in the launch as a featured blogger on Renee Bhagwandeen's blog "Models Mafia." I did a total of 15 photo shoots. I got to spend time with two very special people to me: Shelbie Kramer & Anthony Tudisco. I met with some amazing peeps at Smile Train. I connected with people I have been social media friends with for years and photographed them (Danielle Zierer, Melanie Needham, Mary Hargrove). I made MOVES. We made moves. I am leaving that city with a very different feeling than I had years ago and this time it's a damn good one.

 

  I do get a little anxious about taking this on of course. I'm scared I'll run out of money, being in all of these places alone seems so crazy, getting lost, not receiving space donations for shoots, etc. But if I have learned anything these past two years, it's that someone or something greater than me wants this project to happen. I feel like every time I question what is about to happen I am met with a solution more effective than I could have done on my own. Every. Single. Time. So those "leaps of faith" I was talking about earlier, well they just reassure me to trust, to stay confident in what I am doing because I DO got this. I will succeed in the completion of 1IN700 because I want it more than I have ever wanted anything else in my life.

 

  I found love in this project. Growing up, I was that kid with a ton of friends. Strong characters that weren't afraid to speak their minds. I admired them so much more than they ever could have even known. I thought that being cleft affected AND gay meant I couldn't stand up for myself. That I NEEDED friends to protect me. While that is fantastic and I still aspire to have those kind of friendships, 1IN700 has taught me that I am beyond capable. I am able. I am strong. I am ready. And I will.

 

p.s. I am sorry if the format is a little funky. I am posting this on a bus from NYC to D.C. from my cell phone so it may look a little different! 

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I ate so many tortas. Spanish Harlem has the beeeest! 

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My friend Matty (Matt Clancy) turned me into a bunny during our Easter brunch.  

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Second time meeting this beauty and have surely gained a lifelong friendship.  

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Test shoot w // @ShannonMcnulty // @MajorModelsNYC  

Hair & Makeup // @makeupbydisco

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Shoot with my old friend Rob Miraglia 
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Melanie Needham & Danielle Zierer

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@anthonytudisco // @beieio

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Danced on rooftops and laughed until the sun went down and came back up again. The love I have for these two is insane. Thank you so much for the pics @anthonytudisco !!  

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Until next time New York.  

 

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// SILENTLY SHATTERING //

  I have been thinking a lot lately about why I am on this route in life. Why do I feel the need, the incredibly passionate desire to take on SUCH a feat? What makes me so special? Am I totally crazy to think that I, of all people in this world can actually leave a legacy? Change the world?! Does that make me so obnoxious to think that I have that in me..? 

  Growing up I have never had a problem with anxiety. It was like I had this blinder on that shielded me from how harsh this walk in life can be. It wasn't until I found an exciting sight of my future with "1IN700," that I started to feel this uncomfortable dance happen in the pit of my stomach. Subtle at first. Happening more and more each time. It became a little more awkward when the sensation ran up my spine.. What was happening to me? I worried about the most outrageous things. A very real, very deep fear of WHAT IF's. I would be forced to sit down, close my eyes, and talk to myself because the grip of this...worry? (or whatever it was) Sometimes I couldn't breathe. No one really knows this Zack. I felt like opening up about this made me weak. Made me less of a man maybe. Or selfish. That is the biggest thing, I felt selfish for needing to give myself this love and attention. My life was coming to a halt because I didn't know what my purpose was and it was quietly tearing me apart inside, silently shattering all self confidence. I had sky high expectations for all of the people around me. I expected everyone to read my mind about what was actually going on inside my head. Truth be told, I am still figuring that out, but I've finally found a focus, a path, and a destination. I have taken a good long look at what is going on in the world and I am as inspired as I am absolutely terrified. I stand here in the city where "Adult Zack" was born; where I (sometimes very badly) experienced REAL LIFE for the first time. I failed. I failed again. I hurt people. I disappointed others. At the time, I didn't even care. But that had nothing to do with them. I lacked love for myself. I was simply less than in my head. Whether or not that stemmed from my cleft lip, or my sexuality, I just did not care for who I really was. Honestly? Being anyone other than Zack was easier. I thought that I had this disconnect in my head where, what I knew as normalcy didn't work for me but I wasn't good enough to be great. It felt like losing a game in the last inning every single day. So close...but so far. Who would have thought the missing link was finding myself?  
   People don't talk enough about how hard it all is too; when you do find your direction. To balance life, relationships, friendships, etc. When you are so invested in something because you know how important your role is, that everything and everyone else blurs for a moment. Not forever, but just for this period in your life because you have to stay in it. Doesn't mean you love anyone any less, you just have to put you first right now. You have to rock steady, shed any and all things that make you feel not worth it and focus. You have to be strong for you, to be strong for others. Often times that means facing whatever comes your way, head on and other times you have to let things go. Hard lessons learned don't sting forever. 
   Tell yourself that you are capable of handling anything now because the world needs strength. Our communities need resilience. Earth's people need love and authenticity. We all need examples and direction. I am no better, no worse, than any of you who may or may not read this. I hope you don't think I have some sort of God complex because that's not my point. I just want the world to see how happy feels. I want people everywhere to know that being happy means being sad sometimes too, but to also find it inside yourself to be selfish with your love for a while. And watch how choosing to love yourself and find happiness with you is actually the most selfless thing you will ever do. 

03.15.2017 - 03.24.2017 // New York City

  Leaving Los Angeles I was unprepared for the amount of anxiety I would have for the first time in my life. I was lucky enough to gather friends for my last few days on the west coast for one more night on the town for who knows how long. It was refreshing to let my guard down one last time. As soon as I landed at JFK I knew I was immediately back in my element and the anxiety subsided. If you've ever been to the city, you'll understand what I mean when I say the energy and pace NYC gives you makes you borderline superhuman. Productivity is first nature here.
   I hit the ground running the day after I landed with an early morning meeting with one of my good friends Anthony Morrison. Talk about how awesome it is to see one of your friends doing amazing things with their life and career. Anthony brought me behind the scenes of the very popular Good Morning America show. SO COOL!! While I was watching two different sound stages on two different floors communicate with a live audience, I couldn't help but think this is what watching an Orchestra is like. So fluid, effortless, and in it's own way...kind of beautiful. 

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Future host? Only if they allow nervous laughing. 

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(My buddy Anthony and I hanging out on set and someone else having an impromptu shoot at the desk too, because the GMA staff is that cool)
 
  

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(Yes, that is Ryan Reynolds) 

 

  Almost immediately after we went off air, I had to jet over to mid town east to meet with the incredible and wonderful company, Smile Train. If you haven't had a chance to look them up or maybe you have heard of them and haven't researched what all they are about. This organization teaches local doctors how to do cleft lip/palate repairs. Often times Smile Train can be found supplying hospitals and clinics with supplies and devices they need to successfully do these repairs as well as teaching local physicians. CEO Susannah Schaefer and VP Troy Reinhart opened their office doors with such welcoming arms. Everyone in the office was incredibly friendly and had already taken time to look at the "1IN700" website and educate themselves on my personal initiative. It was a pleasureable experience for sure, and one I will not soon forget. Who knows, maybe this will develop into a further partnership...you will just have to wait and seeeeeee ;) but for now enjoy this photo of me doing my best Christie Brinkley on the SMILE bench. 

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  I have also had the incredible opportunity to reconnect with a few dear friends of mine who are NYC based full time. One being the beautiful, artistic, and Trinbagonian (Trini), Renee Bhagwandeen. While she has done A TON of things, you might most recognize her from America's Next Top Model: Cycle 20; L'Oréal Campaign 2017; break out acting role in "Ballers" along side Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, voted #2 Most Beautiful Black Woman in the world, and many, MANY more accomplishments. I am proud to be her friend and watch her flourish in such an exhausting industry. 

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(I took that almost 4 years ago ^^)

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(Roaming around my first day back in NYC) 

 
   Overall, my Big Apple return has been one of excitement, networking, and productivity. I am really happy to have made my way back into the city for a month before heading abroad to as many foreign countries as I can, to find more of the "1IN700" community to photograph. 
   I got through my first weekend of shooting entry photos in the city and WOW. I can't believe I have as much content as I do now. I have not had the opportunity to sit down and edit a bunch of the photos just due to a packed schedule but guys...I am up to entry number 98... It feels so surreal. A year ago I was on my first 10 entry shoots. The first year I was simply figuring out how to get this project off the ground. I was met with a lot of "That's really ambitious..." or "What if you just kept your first book domestic so you don't overwhelm yourself." I found myself being simultaneously discouraged and inspired to focus on accomplishing EXACTLY what I had in mind for this community and for this project. Here I am, almost a full two years later after having the original idea with 98 entries collected and a plan for my international tour in place. I have my ticket to London...and my ticket to Germany. The most intense part of this journey has just begun and rest assured friends, I am more focused than ever. I think these photos of how amazing my first weekend in NYC was will help you understand exactly what I mean. 

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Mr. Dennis giving his best smile for a selfie with me

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   I also want to give a couple big shout outs to a couple studios who donated their space to me and "1IN700" on the WEEKEND. First one being Dune Studios at 55 Water Street in downtown Manhattan. 
 
 http://dunestudiosnyc.com/

This studio was absolutely massive. I walked in and found myself taken back by the wall of windows that overlooked the choppy water on the souther tip of New York, New York. Not only that, but the entire studio felt like a great place to relax and find your creative strides, which was perfect for the emotional, positive, and personal encounters "1IN700" was bringing to Dune Studios today. 
 
Thank you so much Jay Stradwick and the Dune Studios team for accommodating myself and "1IN700!" Your kindness will never be forgotten. 
 
 

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   The following day, there were some scheduling conflicts with Dune Studios so we began reaching out to other studio locations, hoping that someone would be as generous as Dune was. My agent Kiley (aka Super Woman) got in contact with yet another professional, high quality photo studio. This one was in mid town west on 37th street in Manhattan. Located in a small building off 9th avenue I was surprised at what an efficient use of space this studio had been arranged. With several shoot locations within each studio, I was given all of the space and privacy the families who participated and myself needed to execute our meeting and photos without interruption. I walked into Emporia Studios with a big smile on my face, ready to get to work.
 
  http://emporiastudios.com/

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**PHOTO TAKEN FROM EMPORIA STUDIOS WEBSITE** 

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**PHOTO TAKEN FROM EMPORIA STUDIOS WEBSITE** 

 

  When Kiley came to me with the news that Emporia Studios and their team was happy to host "1IN700" for the final day shooting in weekend one, I wasn't even sure how to begin to thank them. We were kind of cutting it close on choosing a location. But really guys...How incredibly generous is it of these people to open their workspace for all of us on our path to awareness creation?! Mind blown. Seriously. New Yorkers get a bad wrap, because I have been met with nothing but kindness, empathy, and generosity.

  One of the partners at the studio, Cesar, met me the morning of my shoots to help me get settled into the space. Almost immediately I had my first family there and my camera in hand. Work days like these, are definitely a change to how this project started out. Shooting in Air Bnb's across the nation worked very well for a while, but I am beyond stoked to have the opportunity to shoot "1IN700" content in such a professional environment. So another huge THANK YOU to Emporia Studios on West 37th St here in New York City. 

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**PHOTO TAKEN FROM EMPORIA STUDIOS WEBSITE**
 
   For those of you who follow me on Instagram, you probably will hear about how rough travel can be on me. On anyone really. Travel is by far my favorite kind of adventure to have, BUT it is inevitably exhausting and can take a toll on your body and belongings. THANKFULLY, NYC has some of my favorite shopping and brands here. Sabon NYC being my absolute favorite skincare brand, I was soooooo happy to walk in and find exactly what every man needs for traveling:
 
Gentleman Collection Travel Kit 

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  If you hurry, you can even catch this brand new product on SALE. For real dudes, it's worth it. My skin and hair has never felt so protected like it feels after I use the shampoo with paraben oil and silky hand cream for those cold city nights. 
   I think it is safe to say, the Northeast has treated me very well so far. I have so much in store for all of you following along. "1IN700" is t-minus 1 month from officially being an international project! I couldn't have done it without the amazing help from the community I have learned to call family. 
 
Here we go!
 

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San Francisco // 2.16.17 - 2.19.17

  San Francisco is one of my favorite cities I have ever visited. It feels a bit like NYC and LA had a baby. Like all of my favorite things of each city are smooshed together on this art drenched island. Everything, from it's grunge to self driving Ubers, is just so fascinating to me. I was lucky enough to be able to extend a work trip unrelated to "1IN700" into a long weekend of entry shoots. I have two moms to thank specifically for helping raise funds to help make this possible. Kelly Sayer and Stephanie Reed took it upon themselves to reach out to other mothers and set a goal of $1,000 to raise as a donation to help 1IN700 make San Francisco / Bay Area an official stop on the "1IN700" International Photo Project Tour. The mothers and I came together to schedule hour long sessions for two days for the families that wanted to participate. It was arguably the fastest leg of tour I have ever planned, with all of it coming together in less than a week. These families were are a true testament to what the cleft community and large support system is really all about. So again, I want to express my deepest gratitude for your donations, words of encouragement, and opportunity to show the world your beauty through my eyes.
 

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  All in all, the trip was a huge success. I did have a few hiccups along the way with our "Cozy and Affordable Studio in the heart of SF!!" AirBnb. So happy I had my co-pilot Taylor Cutler with me for that crazy part of the journey. Typically when the families raise money to help bring the project to their city, I will book an AirBnb with some of the funds (after communicating with the hosts exactly what I am doing). It's an easy way to be somewhere comfortable, contained, and spacious enough to snap some photos. I have never had a problem with the company before, but this time I was really bummed. The place was very different in the photos, the hallway to the apartment had exposed wood and pipes. Basically, it was a disaster. Panic. Panic for real. I couldn't bring children up here. There was no way. So after the initial shock of what was happening I got on the phone.
After speaking with AirBnb customer service things were being handled. My refund would come in a couple of days but the host was going to be contact...yada yada yada. They have never let me down in the past and I will definitely use them again, but not until I am done being mad at them (AirBnb).
  THANKFULLY Lisa Cutler (Tay's mom, who is kind of like my mom too) was able to direct us to the Marriott in Union Square. They were happy to put us up. I had people meet me in the courtyard to talk and take photos and all of the staff just gave us space. Since it is just me and my camera and no fancy light set up, places seem to be really receptive to helping once they hear from me in person. I am not sure anyone at Marriott corporate will ever read this but THANK YOU for having such an amazing staff and always the best accommodations at a great price.  
 

  SF was full of incredible experiences. I am now able to say that I have fed a cleft affected puppy! Thanks to Kelly Sayer who spends some of her time fostering cleft affected puppies and provides assisted feedings, I was able to syringe feed baby Darla in that photo above! These dogs are often immediately euthanized because people fear starvation. If they are helped to feed for the first three weeks of their life, their chance of survival tremendously increases to have a normal healthy life. A life of a cleftie :*) It was an experience I am beyond grateful for and will hopefully be able to put into practice more after this tour is finished. Who knows? :)

If you are trying to raise money to help 1IN700 come to your city Kelly Sayer and Stephanie Reed have both offered their advice on how they did it. Feel free to find them on Facebook and shoot them a message. Thanks again ladies! You roooock!

 

Let's Talk About FUNDRAISING - What your money goes to?

  

  Fundraising is always such a tough topic. Especially when you are trying to fundraise for something you're so passionate about. I have found that the only way to make this as painless as possible is to fill you all in on where your money goes, what it does for the project, and how 1IN700 has benefitted from all of your generous donations. I want to be as transparent as possible along my process.  

   2016 was a pretty profitable year considering it was only year one! We collectively raised just under $10,000 from January 2016 to December 2016. After doing the math, taking into consideration merchandise sales..I was still shocked. This is a great outcome for our first year. But this year, I need to triple it. International travel is no joke (not to mention travel insurance for camera equipment). I am an avid traveler and am always ready to go, but the finances have to be there. This past year with sales and donations I was able to pay for six trips around the United States to photograph clefties. I was able to do so because of YOU guys. The readers, the benefactors, the random $1,000 (extremely generous) donators are the ones who made the 25,000 miles flown possible. I spoke at a couple cleft events, explaining about my project, found myself at large charity galas talking to a crowd about 1IN700, and all in all WE MADE MOVES. Awesome, necessary, ambitious moves. And now, I am ready to take it to the next step: International. 

  The money I need to raise per month for international travel is a little frightening, but I am going to take whatever travel comes my way whenever it comes. I am confident that once international travel starts, I will be able to accomplish a lot in a single trip. I am talented at maximizing my content amount on trips. Travel inspires me to capture, it's as simple as that. My camera is glued to my hand documenting whatever life changing journey I am on.  

  I have had families around the U.S. start fundraisers to bring me to a specific area. Those are the ones that seem to get the most attention from 1IN700. It's their own initiative to bring me there, one I am incredibly grateful for. Several places like Texas and Minneapolis took it upon themselves to raise the funds and bring me to their events.  

  I am excited for this year. I am confident. I am ready. Let's hit the ground running and make the moves we need. It's time to change gears and amp up the speed. We have all the tools now. We have been at this a year. We have built a community and educated others with our voice. Let's make the whole world hear us now.  

ENTRY #20 - NIXON GARBER

A while back I embarked on my first leg of tour. I met so many people and talked constantly about 1IN700 and how it has changed my life. I spoke about my journey and shared battle wounds. I listened to parents fall apart and build themselves back up in the same conversation. This family in particular was pretty special. The Garber's that drove all the way from Cheyenne, WY to meet me and be a part of 1IN700. It was well over a two hour commute for a couple hour meet, greet, and photo shoot. And let me tell you how much this little boy made Twanika and I smile. 

 

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  This smiley little guy made quite the impact on us. His parents, mild mannered, and relaxed. Made me feel like this parental encounter would be not only a pleasant one but also an informative one. Nixon had one of the more sever clefts I have seen, post repair. Let me tell you what a happy kid he is though. With bi-lateral cleft lip and a cleft palate and several more surgeries on his horizon you'd think that he would be a little bit more of a "problem child," when in actuality he is arguably the happiest 2 (now 3) year old you would ever meet. His parents will tell you that we just got lucky with timing, but Twanika and I like to think it was because he took so well to us. I keep saying "us" but really Nixon just fell in love with the beautiful Twanika. Her smile and calling him her "little man" brought so much joy into his face, no lie it would have made your heart melt a bit. 

  When I got back from Denver, I was kind of a mess. I had SO much content I didn't know what to do with it all. I waited to make sure that I could situate all the photos into categories and somewhat organize the chaos. I did and then when I got to edit Nixon's photos....I couldn't find them anywhere. Panic set it and I just started to get so upset with myself that I threw my hands up in the air, cupped my eyes with my hands and just felt like a complete failure. How did I misplace over 300 photos?? This had never ever happened to me before. I was finally experiencing my first ever TRUE technical difficulty. But what most don't have that I did...I had Twanika. And WHOA did she come to the rescue. She had several photos that I could choose from and create into a temporarty entry photo until I could find mine again or schedule another shoot with Nixon, if need be. So needless to say, this bond between them went further than I think either expected. The universe works in hilarious ways and boy oh BOY was I confused when I couldn't find the images. Why would this happen? What did I do wrong? Am I the WORST photographer in the world for losing photos? Luckily, I have friends and peers creative enough to have my back in a time of need. So Twanika, a MASSIVE THANK YOU from both myself, 1IN700 and for the intergrity of the project.  

 

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Me and Nixon's parents trying to get him to sit in front of the most beautiful place: Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast. (PC: Twanika Jett) 

Me and Nixon's parents trying to get him to sit in front of the most beautiful place: Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast. (PC: Twanika Jett) 

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  I also want to mention something to educate those reading. So Nixon's cleft, as well as many other cleft affected, causes him to have a bit different of a laugh. It's a bit more nasally and he does this quick breathing thing through his nose when he laughs that I think is the actual CUTEST!! But this happens to us a lot because without a palate your air intake just flows differently into your body and sometimes causes noises not a lot of people are used to. But that is pretty normal for us. Snorts haaaappen! Honestly, they crack me up because I just know the involuntary feeling so well and the look on people's face is 100% priceless. Not everyone shares that perspective, but I encourage my cleft brothers and sisters to embrace every angle of who they are. Snorts, stitches, and starey eyes all together. We can't all be as cute as Nixon here, but we can make our lives filled with more joy by learning to love all of you. 

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***2016 Review***

 1IN700 - 2016 recap

  If you would have asked me at the beginning of this year I would have told you that I would be wrapping up my tour for 1IN700 and everything would be going perfectly. I would have said that by now FOR SURE I’d have all the money I needed to complete the photo book project. I would have been certain that this journey was close to an end.

This year I was extremely optimistic. 

This year I learned what being humbled feels like.

  For a while I was getting so incredibly frustrated at the money aspect of this project. Mostly just that there is one at all. It’s so hard putting a price tag on your art. It’s my least favorite part about all of it. People often ask what it is I need to complete this and the only things that I can think to say are things that I absolutely have coming in regularly. Yeah, more donations, better camera equipment, etc would be nice, but I have people like Michelle Tonacchio that keep me organized and precise (definitely have no idea what I would do without her). Ultimately the support, the emails of encouragement, the messages from all around the world that I receive on a daily basis…those push me to work harder. To put in days, nights, and weekends. One way or another the photo book will be accomplished, but I’ve learned that it is not something to rush.
  As I look back on this past year, I am realizing that so much of 1IN700’s future was aligned with my own personal goals. 1IN700 is not only going to provide awareness for the cleft community but also empower all humans to feel a part of something special. I needed to find the resilience within myself (that I knew I had) for anything related to this project to move forward. I know that what I finally want to do with my life is in front of me. I know that I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives on a wide scale and now I have the platform. I also know that this is much, much bigger than me. I am a tool in a grand scheme and I think I have finally realized what exactly my function is. We, at our best, understand that the compilation of experiences that bring us to where we are now shape us to do our part in bettering society. That’s what I believe anyway. I feel like I was born with this voice in the time of political turmoil, social inequality, and a severe lack of empathy for a very specific reason. As I continue on this philanthropic journey and meet peers that feel the same pull, I keep my head up and eyes forward and see that WE are here to fulfill a purpose far beyond just one individual. We are performing a balancing act; our paths of societal service, are the weights to tip the scale into harmony. That means sacrifices, bags under your eyes, and nights spent at airports around the world. No one ever said change came from an easy place and let me assure you…something THIS rewarding could ever be simple.  

  One of my favorite memories was landing in Minneapolis and meeting everyone who showed up for the very rainy picnic. I found out that one boy dropped out after he won the drawing to shoot with me because he told his mom he wasn’t up for it. I felt like this exact moment was an opportunity to make a difference for this little guy. I identified so much with him. If you would have asked 7 year old Zack, I would have politely turned you down if you asked to take my photo. And if that didn’t work, I would’ve ran and hid behind my mom. I was speaking with the boy’s mother and found out that he is actually kind of into photography. So naturally, I strike up a deal with him: He can take my camera and snap my picture, if he will let me take one of him. He took a second, glanced at the camera around my neck, looked me into the eyes, cracked a smile and said “Ahh OKAY. ONLY ONE THOUGH!” I did as he said (luckily I am a quick shot and he is a super photogenic kid because I didn’t need more than a frame or two). 

In that moment, I knew I was just granted access to something not a lot of people will reach with my buddy, Asher. I knew that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to have his picture taken, but he didn’t want the photographer to stare at his camera after multiple clicks to figure out a “better” way of capturing him. He didn’t want the photographer to tell him “Smile bigger!” because sometimes you just can’t (am I right or am I right clefties?). I asked him to let me show him the way I saw him. I’m sure he probably also didn’t expect to like the picture, agreeing was more of a way to appease mom and dad who were both excited about the project. Look at this handsome guy!  

  I gotta say, little victories like this revive my thrill and love for this project. Each step, each encounter, lessons learned and hearts touched. Thank you Eichmeyer Family! And thank you Asher for being a true success story and for reminding me why I began 1IN700.

  Another personal favorite part of this year, was my spontaneous trip to Orlando, Florida just a week after I got back from Denver’s event, Dash For Smiles. At the beginning of this year, I received a message from a woman in South Florida showing off her beautiful son, Colton. She went on to explain that she has been following the project from the very start. Since I released my very first (and very funny, in my opinion) campaign video. Then her message shift moods when she told me that the reason this was so special to her was because she wasn’t sure she would be around to help teach her son when he got older on his cleft lip. You see, Melinda is a fierce advocate for the cleft community and when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma, her desire to educate only grew. I didn’t know what to say. At the time, I wasn’t able to just drop everything and buy a flight as much as I wanted too. So I messaged back, and this organic friendship began to bloom. She once told me: “Whether I am around to see it or not, I really do hope Colton can be in 1IN700.” I just responded: “He will be and you will be in some photos with him. I’m coming.” 

  As the year progressed I went to Denver and she followed along, always vocal on social media to show her support. Sending me messageds of encouragement. I had just arrived in Colorado for the second time when I started to see updates on her health and how it was declining. My heart sank. I felt so helpless. My phone started going off constantly, I was in a group chat with these incredibly intense and amazing women/mothers. They were on a mission to get me to Orlando. They wanted to see if we could create a fundraiser to pay for everything and then take the Bly’s to do some fun things. In 3 hours they raised $1,000 to send me there. And 9 days later, off to Orlando I went. 

I reserved a condo with a huge play ground, pool, and a jacuzzi tub in the master (which was Melinda’s obviously). We ate deep dish pizza and I cooked us breakfast. We went to the Crayola Factory and had too much fun. At a couple points throughout the day you could find just Melinda and I on some of the colorful contraptions with Colton watching. Haha, that woman is such good energy you can’t help but have a blast around her. We faced the heat of mid day to take photos for a bit and sweat more than I have in years. We stayed up late and talked about life. She has a way of making you feel so comfortable. It’s probably her infectious laugh combined with her lively spirit. Whatever it was, this woman just became very special in my life. She taught me that life is so much more than reputation and rules. It’s about the few and far in between moments of laughter so hard it’s painful, of late nights and long talks, and of loving as hard and as freely as you can.  

I am ecstatic to announce that, quite literally as I type this, Melinda is receiving a stem cell transplant from her brother. This is such a big deal because this gives her a fighting chance to kick this for good! This is a day that doctors told her she most likely would never reach. But she is still fighting and now she is winning. No words. Just gratitude. So much gratitude.

  I was unaware of the amount of parents out there that need someone to lean on when it comes to discussing their child’s cleft. I am strong and able, friends, you can lean on me now. Even if just for the few hours of our encounter. These mothers and fathers need someone who has been through this to look them in the eyes and tell them that this will all be okay. I think as kids we hold our parents on these pedestals, like they are the strongest people on the planet and they fear nothing. But when it comes to you…their kid, their child, their baby; well everything changes then. They fear everything; what happened in the past (and how that could have possibly effected you), what is happening now, and what MAY happen in the future. 80% of these things are out of their control and for the most part, they lock those fears away and become the warrior you need to brave hospital overnights, hundreds of stitches, and nasty comments. Where I can come in now, is to be that rock for those I meet. If I can look parents in the eyes and tell them that it is more than possible for their child to grow up “normally,” I will. But I will preface that by mentioning just how special each cleftie is. I will tell parents never to forget,  by being 1 in 700, this baby can change the perspectives of the many uneducated citizens they will encounter. Discrimination won’t at all be a part of how this child views the world (which already makes them exclusively charmed in a way). I have learned that this community is a one of a kind, resilient, generous, and supportive group of people; all of which seem to fully comprehend and implement empathy into their person-to-person interactions. 

  Aside from me being my own worst critic, I am proud of the moves 1IN700 has made. It is absolutely crazy to me to think about what has been accomplished within 1IN700’s first year. 

Over 20,000 miles traveled. 

Applied for a non-profit certification.

Photographed 45 people.

Established brand partnerships.

Access to workspace.

4 press/media appearances. 

Countless smiles encouraged.    


 Not too shabby for someone who knew nothing about running/owning a non-profit a year ago. I was still learning how to make dinner for myself let alone balance a business account and expenses. But this all felt so easy to dive head first into. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing at first, but I knew that I loved the cause enough to figure it out. I have spent hours editing videos that I never used, designing websites that never go live, and just simply discovering all the technical abilities of the equipment. What else is experience other than one giant class room? So, now I am here a year later organizing the stack of photo release forms from all over the nation, thinking to myself…what’s next? I have maybe another couple of stops I want to do state side and then I am going to need to cross some pond and begin my foreign adventures, more partnerships, lots more photos... 

 

But maybe we will save those plans to be made and announced first thing 2017. 

 

From myself and 1IN700 I want to wish you all the HAPPIEST HOLIDAYS <3 Stay tuned for huge things coming in 2017!

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ENTRY #18 - JAMIE BELL

  I have typed up this blog entry a thousand times. I have almost clicked share more times than I can remember. But I find myself revising, revisiting, rewriting this particular entry. Ya see, Jamie Bell is incredibly special not just to myself, but to the state of Colorado and the entire Cleft Community. When she was born, Jamie was by far one of the most sever cases of cleft lip and cleft palate most surgeons have seen. Jamie was born with a bilateral cleft lip and a complete palate. It's come to my attention that a few readers haven't quite been able to understand just how intense these surgeries actually are. Let me put some things into perspective for you: 

  When you have a cleft palate, the entire roof of your mouth is open leaving your sinus cavity exposed. As you can imagine, this makes sucking virtually impossible for a newborn. Babies have starved to death, become severely malnourished, and are typically always speech delayed. To correct this, a bone must be shaped to fit the opening. Where do they get that bone you ask?? Surgeons will perform a bone graft from the cleftie's hip. Before I continue, I want you to imagine now, baby Jamie having well over 5 surgeries before her first memory. Now imagine 7 million babies beginning a journey not so different than Jamie's, every single year. That is just a single surgery on your palate, I haven't even mentioned the lip revisions.  

  It's tough to see the journey she had ahead of her in this photo because she was SO DARN CUTE!! Seriously, that smile with those sultry eyes are still such a part of who Jamie is today. I have loved getting to know about her struggles because she has overcome so many of them. This woman dodged photographers, videographers, etc for 30+ years as much as she could. That gut wrenching feeling that you aren't good looking enough to be in front of the camera. I get it. I know that sometimes you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder what you would look like with that cute little indent on a "normal" lip. If you're as big of a romantic as I am then you also imagine kissing. Will that feel weird for someone? Will I ever know what it's like to kiss a lip like mine? 
As an adolescent, we as 1IN700, get this misconception that NO ONE understands or gets what is so rapidly going through our head. And for the most part, guys, you're right. Not a lot of people will be able to truly understand the capacity at which you function...except us. Cleftie's like Jamie Bell grow up, work hard, push through, and have this total desire to change that. Jamie Bell is the Co-Founder of FacetoFace; one of Colorado's largest cleft related organizations that focuses on providing resources to newly cleft affected family and providing a safe space for all 1IN700 to be themselves. Jamie is much more than 1 in 700, she is definitely one of a kind.  

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  On that sunny day in April when Jamie Bell walked up to Castle Marne for her 1IN700 photoshoot, she checked her painful memories at the door. Her anxiety about stepping in front of the camera was there, but with smiles and laughs she was able let go and give me the honor of taking her photo. I would click, click, click, look at the photos and get choked up at every one. I am the first person to tell you what an emotional guy I am, but HOLY COW. Watching this beautiful soul lay it all on the line for this timeless piece of education just brought tears to my eyes. Every single photo just shined.

You shine, Jamie. 

  Jamie brought her daughter Alysha to the shoot with her. What a funny, funny, thing to see. Jamie and her mini me. I am not sure if it's the immense amount of empathy Jamie has taught her over the years, or if it's Alysha growing up with a different understanding of how to treat others...but this young woman has a soul older than both Jamie and I. Speaking with her, I felt like I was talking to a full grown adult about aspirations and dreams. Her input on dealing with other cleft affected (or any birth defect) was well beyond her years. 

  So naturally, I had to snap photos of them together. This little girl LOVES her momma, and her momma LOVES her. Bonds like this bring me back to childhood with my mother, when no matter what your mom is your best friend and confidant. It's interesting because the common theme of this book so far has been a lot of younger kids having that close connection with their mother because of their cleft. With Jamie and Alysha, it's somehow different. Jamie looks at Alysha with passionate, mothering love. And Alysha looks back with understanding, empathy, and compassion. I adore watching this whirlwind of affection. 

  Writing this post has literally taken me months. I have told Jamie, "Don't worry! I'll post it tomorrow," more times than I should have. Truth is? I have been waiting for this moment of true creative inspiration to be able to complete a post that I know deserves such attention. Jamie checks in on me now and again. Never to ask about her photos, or to bug me about her blog post. Jamie checks in on me to tell me how proud of me she is. How she watches 1IN700 grow and she smiles with confidence. 

  With the widest smile, warmest hug, and deepest gratitude, I introduce Mrs. Jamie Bell. Entry #18 in 1IN700. I couldn't do this without you. 

 
 

JAMIE BELL - TESTIMONY

ENTRY #17 - Isaac Rocha

  When I was in Denver I was interviewed by Channel 9 news as they covered 1IN700's arrival. They asked me questions like "Why is this so important to you?" and "What makes this project special?" It was funny because I have thought about the answer to these questions for months. I have always just known exactly what to say and for the first time in my life I just let my passion speak for me, I held nothing back. That used to not be the case for me when I was younger. Being shy is an understatement for young Zack. Words didn't come so easy. Which brings me to my meeting with Isaac. I mentioned in the interview that every time I meet a new cleftie, I feel like I am staring at a version of myself. Isaac, even though rather quiet most of the time during our shoot, reminded me a lot of pre-teen Zack. 

  As a young kid dealing with something you cannot hide from, you tend to hide your voice instead. Quietly shifting back in forth in your mind, sorting through what to say and what isn't worth saying. It's this mental somersault most cleft affected are familiar with. Ya see, I get Isaac more than he thinks. He's got this demeanor about him that is perceived as strength. Clefties carry the weight of other people's perspective often. It can become so intensely heavy we retreat to the confines of our mind. I watched Isaac observe silently while I spoke with his mother Cassandra Rocha. He had the typical teenage angst towards his mothers cheek kisses and head rubs, but deep down you could see that he loved his mom. How could he not?! Cassandra is a Co-Founder and CEO of Dash for Smiles, a Denver based cleft organization that does some incredible work. She took up responsibility (as many mothers do) to become a die hard cleft advocate. So much so that she now helps bring awareness to all of Colorado. Be sure to check out their website and if you happen to be in Denver at the end of July, you absolutely HAVE to come out to the annual event. Who knows, you may just see me there ;)  http://www.dashforsmiles.org/

  The power behind a mother's desire to do something great for her child is indescribable. Cassandra is a true testament to what it means to be cleft strong. As for Isaac, your silence doesn't read as weakness, it screams fortitude. From one cleftie to another, stay strong brother. I will be here to help you rise.  

Entry #15 & #16 - Carson & Jon Jon Wangnild

  These two next entries were a part of a family that I have only heard about in online health articles and cleft literature. Not only are both children cleft affected, so is their mother, Brenda. Three clefties in one family! I can't even begin to imagine the journey they have all faced. All supported by their father and husband, Daniel. I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel at Castle Marne and what a wonderful experience that was. Daniel struck me as the timid type. Not standoffish by any means, just a quiet mannered man. But as I started the questioning, he opened up to Twanika and I without inhibitions about his families cleft journey. 
  You can probably guess what our first question was to him. What is it like being out numbered by clefties in your immediate family?! He answered with a smile and said "it's really something special." Daniel went on to explain how Brenda is an open ear and empathetic voice for both boys. This little trio of clefties are also accompanied by such a capable father figure. He talked about the dozens of surgeries between them all and how many hospital visits and doctors appointments each one has and how they balance all of that scheduling. IT'S TOUGH! Once we touched all of our bases with the boys cleft journey, Twanika and I looked at each other and had the same thought: Now what about YOUR cleft journey? 

His answer was short, simple, and 100% sufficient. "I'd do it all over again."
 

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  As you can see from the photo above, I spent most of my time with them playing with bubbles and chasing them around the yard playing tag. I gotta tell you, I forgot how hypnotizing those bubbles are. Seriously though...once the kids were going after them if you took a quick glance around the yard at the Castle, you would see all of the adults popping one here and there. It truly was such a fun afternoon (even with those new dirt stains on my pants haha). 
  I saw the relationship these boys have with one another and WOW does it remind me of my brother and I. You see, my brother is five years older than I am, and naturally just so smart while I am the creative black sheep. It definitely made for an interesting dynamic between two strong willed boys. Him and I would mess with each other all of the time. From poking fun, to being downright devious! I liked to pull the little brother card often and usually my parents went for it. Sorry bro ;)! Ultimately, we loved each other a bunch as kids. Yeah we got sick of seeing one another but he was, for the first significant part of my life, my best friend. Carson and Jon Jon have an incredibly unique bond being both cleft affected. They are given the gift of walking through this cleft journey led by their mother and with a partner.  

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  One of these days here soon, I am planning on making my way back to Denver to get Brenda in front of the camera. I can't imagine her not having a place in "1in700" alongside her cleft strong cuties. 

Entry #14 - Grady McMahan

  Do you ever get those gut feelings about people the moment they walk into the room? Like your gut is screaming at the top of it's lungs that THIS encounter will move you. I try my best to listen to that instinct we have inside. Over the years, it has become more and more clear that this voice will not steer me wrong. I knew from the moment I saw her; Melissa McMahan was exactly the type of person a cleftie like Grady needs for guidance and love. I just knew it. 

  It was, yet again, a moment of clarity. We are here, in this moment, right now, for a very specific reason. I was about to be blessed with a story of fear, preparation, and conscious resilience. Melissa and her husband were about to join the community that would help her through it. 
  At her 20 week ultrasound (which a common time period to identify if your child is cleft affected) Melissa sat prepared for more exciting news. Everything was going pretty well with the pregnancy, minor medication, maybe something for nausea here and there. A morning routine of prenatal vitamins and folic acid assured her each step she was taking is correct. 
  Now, I'm not a mother, but I have heard enough stories to find a common denominator and I am going to try my best to explain it.
  It's that moment you hear the doctor take a deep breath after giving you the good news first.  Although only seconds pass, each and every possibility rush through your brain. Shivers run up your spine and your palms sweat. Did that tiny bit of medication I took harm my baby? Did I do this? I can't even begin to comprehend the magnitude of weight a mother and father must feel in those few moments. The unknown. The scariest thing in the world to most. Your grip tightens, wherever it is, and in those short few seconds, you ready yourself. I have seen this in the eyes of each cleft mother. The welling up of strong arms, steadying your eyes, ready to receive and conquer whatever it is that is about to come your way. I admire this so much about cleft affected mothers like Melissa. You shine so bright and you have no idea.
  Melissa and her husband live in a very rural area and have always stayed rather private. The social media world simply just, wasn't their thing. Like most mothers do when learning of their child's cleft, Melissa turned to the internet. Not so much social media at first, just preliminary research on what her husband and herself were about to face. It was to her understanding (like a lot of other folks in the U.S.) that this condition was primarily a third world country issue. 
  With guilt building inside this mothers heart, she finally found a few women's groups on Facebook for cleft affected mothers. There she found support, reassurance that this was NOT her fault, rather she was being gifted with a very special child and he with a very special mother. Baby Grady would also have a life long companion, his twin brother Berg. Although Berg doesn't have a cleft, he will undoubtably be by his side every step of the way. 

  Photographing these guys was some of the best cardio I have had in a while (and I like to think I'm rather fit). I have hung out with a single two year old or a pair of older brothers, but I am just not sure how Melissa balances twins so gracefully. Props again to you Melissa!
  These boys show their love for her so freely, it's beautiful. No shame in being mommas boys when your mom is THAT amazing. Needless to say, we had a wonderful day. I got a workout and some really great photos. 

Plus, hanging with twice the cuteness totally worked for me. 

SO MANY HUGS!

SO MANY HUGS!

Life seems really cool with a twin. 

Life seems really cool with a twin. 

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  So here we are, again to notice, celebrate, and thank another family for their contribution to "1in700." You are appreciated and will forever be a part of this timeless piece of education. Stay cleft strong :*)!

ENTRIES 12 & 13 - Joshua & Ezekiel Rodriguez

  Denver was not only the first leg of the "1in700" tour but also the first time I was greeted by cleft siblings in person! Joshua and his little brother Ezekiel were suuuuper shy when we first met. I tried breaking the ice a bit with just sharing a bit about my story and why I am doing this. I showed them my scar and smiled. They weren't sure how to handle this old dude getting all in their face with a camera haha. 

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  While talking with their mother (and biggest fan) Joyce Rodriguez, I realized yet again what incredible parents those in the cleft community have. Joyce is a part of Dash For Smiles, a Colorado based organization that does an annual fundraiser. The "1in700" team is planning on attending this year at the end of July! I can't wait to witness such an amazing turnout. 

  After snapping several photos of these handsome dudes, I started asking them questions about what it was like going through school. I loved that these two just sat quietly next to each other. You could tell that sibling rivalry was minimal (still there for sure but minimal nonetheless) and that they cared about each other.  Ezekiel and Joshua had the typical cleftie eyes. I didn't hear them speak much at all, but that's just fine. We clefties are masters of communicating with our eyes. These boys did just that. 

  Growing up a middle child, I know what it's like to have this inexplicable desire to love and protect your siblings (regardless of how annoying they can be to you). These guys have a special bond, one I hope to have with the entire cleft community. 

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  And now, here is the moment I captured with these two beautiful clefties. 

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ENTRY #11 - WILLOW TONACCHIO

  We walk through our own journey and experience and sometimes forget the power in camaraderie. This next little girl has a mother that I like to refer to as "Mighty Michelle." This woman is a power house of passion. After a couple of my first shoots Michelle reached out and expressed her interest in wanting to help with "1in700" in whatever way possible. She designed several logos, cuts, and colors as options before we even had our initial conversation! I was so impressed at her immediate dedication. It was obvious to me that this woman is pouring herself into raising awareness. I was completely inspired by the excitement I could hear in her voice. She knew this would help the project and was determined to make it happen. From that moment forward she quickly became a confidant. I would Facebook message her throughout the day, giving her sneak peeks at what was to come on the blog and sharing all the details of our day. As the months progressed our friendship showed potential for such a fluid business relationship as well! With the "1in700" shirts profits, Michelle donates the proceeds to making this book possible all while raising a 2 year old. Needless to say, this woman is quite the super hero. I can count on her to keep me organized alongside with Twanika. Without those two, I'm sure my head would have spun off by now. 
  It makes so much sense to me that such an amazing person like Michelle would give birth to the beautiful (inside and out) Willow. The eyes on this beauty are hypnotizing! As all cleftie eyes are to be honest. When she looks at you, she really LOOKS at you. She has a commanding presence when she trots into a room all starry eyed and full of smiles. Her voice is like soft music to everyone's ears. You can't help but say "awwwwwe" when she starts talking to you. Although she may be blissfully unaware of the journey that lies ahead of her, Willow has the support and love she will need to shine her light for the cleft community. 

   Little Weaving Willow is the name of Michelle's custom design business. Named after her best friend and love of her life, her daughter Willow. Willow's father serves in the U.S. Navy, and currently he has to live elsewhere because of his job which can be really tough. Coming from a military family myself, I understand that our troops have to spend extended periods of time away from their loved ones. That's one of many sacrifices they make for our country, so we salute you Mr. Tonacchio! And we will take great care of these two until you can make it back.  

****I DID NOT TAKE THIS PHOTO****

****I DID NOT TAKE THIS PHOTO****

  I had to include some photos from Michelle's Facebook because I have yet to get Mr. Tonacchio in front of my camera. What's so awesome, is that he actually does some photography for the military, which is beyond cool because I am looking forward to picking his brain on photography advice. This entire family is very obviously destined for greatness, you can see it in their individuality. I could not be more grateful for these wonderful additions to the "1in700" family. 

Right when I walked up the escalator with Twanika, Willow ran right up to greet us. Michelle had been showing her our photos preparing her. Her excitement almost made me cry! 


Right when I walked up the escalator with Twanika, Willow ran right up to greet us. Michelle had been showing her our photos preparing her. Her excitement almost made me cry! 

  She was also SUCH a trooper when the news was there. We had Mike Grady (photo journalist for Channel 9 News - Denver) come interview Michelle and I on the progress and arrival of "1in700" in Colorado. 


  She was also SUCH a trooper when the news was there. We had Mike Grady (photo journalist for Channel 9 News - Denver) come interview Michelle and I on the progress and arrival of "1in700" in Colorado. 

  Twanika let Willow wear that necklace once and then had to start searching for another one, haha! That crystal quickly became Willow's. 


  Twanika let Willow wear that necklace once and then had to start searching for another one, haha! That crystal quickly became Willow's. 

  Denver would not have been the same (or possible) without Michelle/LittleWeavingWillow. It exceeded all expectations because we came together as a team during that trip. From the incredible BTS photography/video work Twanika Jett is doing to the fundraising and consistent organization Michelle brings to the table, I am MORE than happy. We took a massive leap and boy oh boy was it worth it. 





TO ORDER 1IN700 T-SHIRTS: SEND MICHELLE A MESSAGE AT www.facebook.com/littleweavingwillow AND SHE WILL HELP PLACE YOUR ORDER :) I will also post your photos on the blog and Facebook! I love seeing all of those posts so don't forget to tag me!

ENTRY #10 - JIM NOWAKOWSKI

  This next entry was one I was particularly excited about, considering how we found each other. One day, I received a Facebook message from a woman named Connie Nowakowski. She sent me a link to a dancer's fan page. As I took a closer look, I realized just who she was talking about. Jim Nowakowski from Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance! OF COURSE! I feel like a lot of the cleft community (whether you watched the show or not) heard about him taking the stage. How every performance was polished by grace and elegance; how each move executed was felt entirely. AAAAAAAAND he is a cleftie! His talent and dedication made a bit more sense to me after making that realization. Even more after scheduling his photoshoot and meeting him in person. 

  Twanika and I immediately felt a kinship with him as he pulled up. He is new to Los Angeles for the most part and when we began sharing our stories, we knew he would easily fit in with the crew. Since his mom was the one to connect us we started there. He explained me that he was adopted. He elaborated a bit further about how a cleft affected baby came to be adopted by an American family. His parents received a phone call from the adoption agency once their baby boy had arrived. They were given the news that he was born with a unilateral cleft lip and a complete palate. This baby boy obviously had quite the journey ahead of him. Connie asked if he was healthy otherwise, they said yes. This was such an interesting/inspiring situation to hear about because most mothers have no choice in the matter. They have to deal immediately with something that was beyond their control. Connie? Well she just wanted a boy and anything else they could handle. And handle it, they did. It's mothers like Connie that us clefties are blessed to have. Cleft affected mothers are so much more special than any of us have the capacity of realizing when we are young. They take on their journey without hesitation; for that, we thank you.  

Photo by: Zachary Coffin at www.drypowderco.com 


Photo by: Zachary Coffin at www.drypowderco.com 

  Needless to say, Jim is an obvious powerhouse for the cleft community. He is yet ANOTHER cleftie that, instead of allowing his cleft to hold him back, he left it drive him towards something great. Sometimes having days where he isn't sure how to express how he felt, he put the emotion into dance. It wasn't until his pre-teen years that he made the decision to take dance more seriously and really go all out pursuing his dream. From that moment on, Jim poured his heart and soul into ballet. Moving in the most beautiful ways, he made his stage presence known and his career began to flourish. Now, Jim lives in Los Angeles pursuing his dream once again. I am sure very soon you will be seeing him dominating another stage. We are so proud of you Jim!  

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  When I asked Jim what being 1 in 700 meant to him, his answer couldn't have been anymore accurate. 

"Scars show character and represent strength. I'm learning to embrace my imperfections more everyday, and '1in700' is a beautiful reminder that we are not alone."

  Thank you, Jim, for putting your strength on display for the world to see. You are a true cleft strong cleftie. 

I can't sleep

  I can't sleep; so I am sitting on the balcony listening to the rhythmic sounds of the city. A distant siren here, a car honk there...it all just sounds so alive even in the dead of night. I am so active during the day, editing, planning, strategizing, creating, I forget how much my imagination expands at night. When everyone else lays their head and I can slowly bloom into fantasy. I can't sleep. 

  Lately, I find myself in the same chair on the balcony thinking about how far we have come already. It has become increasingly clear that "1in700" is going to change lives. With the word spreading so far and so quickly about this project, I have felt my soul shift into a place I have never been before. Pure, genuine, and complete happiness is rapidly overwhelming me. I can't sleep. To say I am excited would not do this feeling inside justice. I am so much more than just excited. I am in awe of the beauty these people have to share with the world. Some people would leap at the opportunity to be on camera. Clefties? We put on our armor to fight the fear society has shoved upon us for looking "different." Every person I have photographed so far walked into their photo shoot and checked their armor at the door. These soldiers granted me entrance into their most personal of spaces to capture something breathtaking. From the deepest part of my being, I thank you for your bravery. I can't sleep. 

   I watch children, teens, adults, elderly, all believe in the success of the project and with the highest of expectations. So, no, I can't sleep. Not because it's too much pressure, not because I'm scared of letting anyone down, and not because I'm terrified of failing. I can't sleep because I am exhilarated. We are ready to leap. 

 

Now, watch us rise.  

ENTRY #9 - SILVIA SERRANO

  My direct message inbox on Instagram received a message a few weeks back from a young woman that decided to send me a brief description of her cleft journey and included some photos (which I always love to see). Silvia Serrano told me about how through all of the amazing support from her family and the staff at CHLA (Children's Hospital Los Angeles), specifically Dr. Maggee, she was inspired to give back in some way. She studied to later become an LVN and works as one today. Silvia spoke to me a lot about how important she felt it was for the doctors and staff to play the positive role, like they did in her life, for clefties everywhere. Silvia is on her own journey of cleft awareness; researching and ready to give herself for the cause. She's a warrior, one I am thrilled to have a part of "1in700."

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  When Silvia first arrived, I walked out into the parking lot to greet her to find her standing alone. I glanced around the lot a bit more, looking for someone to be parking the car, or walking up to join her inside. After giving her a big welcome hug, I asked if anyone was joining her. She simply said, no. She later explained that this meeting was special for her; that she had never met another cleftie before and that this encounter deserved 100% of her attention. I did that thing where you open your eyes as wide as you can so you don't cry (haha); you don't realize how much of an honor it is to receive someone's full attention until you have it...and I without a doubt, had it. 

  Silvia looked me in the eyes and told me how blessed she is. She embraces her smile and has a fiery passion to help her cleft siblings achieve the same feeling. We all deserve to feel beautiful. 

ENTRY #8 - MADDIE JO BIVENS

  So far for "1in700" I have photographed: one, 8 month old; one, 34 year old; two, 2 year olds; one, 27 year old; and one, 14 year old. Then this radiant little girl showed up at my apartment. Miss Maddie Jo resembles a porcelain doll that should be on display in a museum with her big brown eyes and fire red hair. She was accompanied by her mother (Carrie) and her Aunt; immediately I could feel the intensity that was about to greet me. 
  Maddie saw my cleft and reached up to run her finger across my scar. This ethereal smile started to form on her face. She didn't know which words to use but I watched the excitement build behind her eyes.  

   I sat Carrie down and began to ask questions about what sort of personal challenges she faced when she found out that her unborn daughter was cleft affected. I can't even imagine being in her shoes on this day. Not unlike other cleft mommies, Carrie, walked into her 20 week ultrasound with her husband in hand ready for a routine check up. 
  Since Maddie was child number two for Carrie and her husband they were excited for this appointment! They knew that at this point in the pregnancy they get to find out the sex of their baby! They pile on into the exam room and watch. They hear the heart beat and then share smiles with each other. The familiar excitement of imminent parenthood flooded the Bivens. The nurse took longer than usual, causing some discomfort within Carrie. The nurse sets the remote down and tells them she is going to grab her OBGYN to do any final checks; which was odd. 
  The same doctor that delivered her first daughter walks in and picks the remote up for himself and begins his own investigation. A few agonizing minutes go by and Carrie waits. He sets the remote down, removes his gloves, takes a seat and says: "It looks like there may be a cleft but to be sure we need you to come back in three days and we'll get you answers with the perinatologist, she is the best."
  After some time of questioning, a few tears, and exchanging looks of fear, the Bivens walked out of the hospital on a mission of research. As she explained further Carrie said something I have heard from quite a few mothers now, "When you search online, all you see are the worst case scenarios...and everyone looks so sad." BOOM she said it. One of the reasons why I wanted to create "1in700" in the first place. To show everyone that we deserve and are capable of sharing the same smiles as everyone else. I want to educate the minds of this world on the beauty of the cleft community. Together, we can. 

  Maddie, you've got a bright future and a perfect smile. Shine bright precious little one. It was such a pleasure.