Manny Ventura ’14 Spreads Hope and Awareness About Cleft and Craniofacial Disorders
When Manny Ventura ’14 was a kid, the mirror was where his insecurity lived.
Born with a cleft palate to immigrant parents who divorced soon after his arrival, Ventura always felt different from his peers. Not even three childhood surgeries could stop their taunts.
Cricket nose. Banana split.
He’d try and make friends with the cool kids, hoping for protection from the bullies. But alone with his mirror, there was no place to hide.
“I’d ask myself, ‘Why do I have all these scars?’” remembers Ventura, who grew up in Providence, R.I.
Things got better for him at age 14, when doctors transplanted bone and fatty tissue from his hip. His lips evened out, and the scarring showed a little less. But being a teenager is hard enough without the stigma of a birth defect that most people don’t understand.
With age came self-acceptance, and Ventura’s confidence improved. In high school he found a mentor — Willy Stevens — who taught him to play chess and urged him toward something no one in his family had ever done: Go to college.
“Willy knew how hard it was. I listened to him, and I studied harder.”
Stevens helped Ventura with SAT prep, constantly pressing him to use the vocabulary words in a sentence, learning them inside and out.
“Those little things are what propelled me to move forward,” he says. “He helped me break the chain and think about not only finishing high school but finishing college.”
Ventura’s interest in business and a high school guidance counselor who knew Bentley put the university on his radar. Seeing an opportunity join to the school’s first-generation prep program, he jumped. After six weeks of summer studies on campus, he was a Falcon.
Bentley and Ventura proved a great fit. He majored in Business Management and earned internships with Johnson & Johnson and BNY Mellon. After graduation, he landed a job as a commercial risk analyst with Citizens Bank.
After five years of success in the business world, Ventura began searching elsewhere for fulfillment.
“I had always wanted to share my message,” he explains. “I thought, now is the time to pursue this new career, to inspire people.”
This time when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see insecurity. He faced questions. Why was he born this way, and how could he help other kids like him find strength?
Ventura reached out to the one person he thought would have answers: Patrick Sullivan, the Rhode Island doctor who had performed his surgeries.
“His office was pretty surprised when I called, but they invited me to talk to him,” he remembers. “Our conversation changed my life.”
Sullivan explained the basics of cleft palates and shared something Ventura had never seen in 28 years: his own baby pictures.
They showed an infant before surgery — and after: a child with no insecurity or self-doubt, just promise.
Ventura teamed up with Smile Train, a children’s charity that offers training and resources for medical professionals worldwide, enabling them to provide cleft repair surgery and care, free of charge, in their home communities. The partnership allowed him to share his story around the world.
Speaking engagements took off from there. One week Ventura would be at Harvard talking to dental students. The next, in Atlanta appearing with Dr. Oz at the CNN Center. In July, for National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month, he took things up a notch. Where some people run a 5K to raise money and awareness for a cause, he ran 31 of them — one a day for the whole month.
“I didn’t know what a 5K was,” he says with a laugh.
To keep himself honest, he would broadcast his runs live on Facebook Live and Instagram, usually wearing a shirt emblazoned with his baby picture. Encouraging messages arrived from all over the world, including two pairs of running shoes.
“Little things like that helped me to never give up,” Ventura says.
On July 31 — coincidentally, the one-year anniversary of quitting his corporate job — he wanted to hit 100 miles for the month, so he doubled up, running 5Ks in the morning and evening to make his mark.
“It was probably the biggest challenge, and reward, in my life,” Ventura says of the effort, which raised more than $12,000 for SmileTrain and four other organizations: Global Smile Foundation, Children’s Craniofacial Association, American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association and MyFace. It was enough to provide initial surgeries for 50 children.
Jesse Nava ’20 Wants to be a Voice for Others
The alumnus is still figuring out what’s next in his advocacy work. Following the publicity his running brought, requests for speaking engagements keep rolling in. He’s considering another running challenge, but also thinking big picture. “For me, while raising money is great, it’s also super important to raise awareness.”
Nowadays, the mirror shows a different reflection, one of a confident young man who’s come through his battle a winner, scars and all.