POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:24 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Shannon Wong didn't grow up with the expectation of "beauty queen" status in her future. Other neighborhood kids regarded her as an ugly duckling, calling her names like "scar face" and "split lip."
Wong, who holds the title of Miss Chinatown, was born with a cleft lip. She's now working with the Miss Chinatown organization to establish a fundraiser for Kapiolani Medical Center's clinic. As the new teen chairwoman for the clinic board, she often speaks to parents and children about her experience. This month, National Cleft & Craniofacial Awareness & Prevention month, Wong says, "I'm hoping to inspire children with challenges and give them hope. I didn't see myself as hideous.
"Clefts are the most prominent birth defect in the U.S.," she said. In the Third World the condition can be life-threatening as it can interfere with nutrition or expose the child to infection. She created a pageant platform — "Encouraging Children with Challenges" — based on her experiences and research.
The three elements of her platform include raising awareness of the need for services; preventing youth isolation and violence; and protecting children by offering peer and community support.
"If a child can identify with someone like myself, a positive role model, they are more likely to communicate, and we will be one step closer to encouraging children with challenges," she said.
Wong had cleft surgery when she was about 8 months old. Although her surgery was a success, she still has a visible scar. Kids on the playground were cruel with their words, but she didn't let their taunting — which included both name calling and physical bullying — get her down.
"It made me a stronger person," she said. "I was an introvert, but my parents made sure that I related to other kids my age. They signed me up for softball, basketball, soccer and a bunch of activities. The other kids learned that my scar didn't hold me back from having the fastest time in swimming or making a goal in soccer."
When Wong entered Maemae Elementary School, she decided to become a peer tutor instead of falling prey to bullies and describes it as a win-win situation for all.
"I was tutoring some of the people who bullied me. I gained their respect that way, and it ended the bullying," she said. "They came to realize that the scar on my face was no different than a scar on their knee."
She attended Hawaii Baptist Academy during middle and high school and participated in the National Junior Honor Society. She also documented her experiences in a journal, a gift from her mother, as "a positive outlet to express myself."
Today, Wong is a lifeguard for the City and County of Honolulu and teaches kids to swim. She is also a student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, working toward a degree in journalism, and eventually plans to study law.
"I consider my scar more of a gift now," she said.
"Be Well" features inspiring stories of people dealing with health challenges. Reach Nancy Arcayna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 529-4808.