Debbie Collins: I’m Determined to Bring Smile to Kids with Cleft Lips and Palate

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She has always loved to work with and care for kids, especially those who are disadvantaged and those who are grappling with one debilitating medical condition or the other. At the moment, her passion lies with kids who struggling to live with cancer and cleft lips and palate. Beautiful and brainy, Debbie Collins, the current Miss Universe Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, is blazing the trail in South Africa and Nigeria when it comes to reaching out to children who needs the world’s sympathy and love. As the ambassador of Smile Train in Nigeria, she has shouldered a responsibility to bring a soothing smile to the face of kids who discriminated against and sometimes abandoned for living with a medical condition that is not of their own making. The beauty queens shares with Obioma Ogbonnaya the fulfillments she finds as a beauty queen and an ambassador of Smile Train, what she is doing now and her plans for the future

• What Being A Beauty Queen Has Taught Me

•  My Dream Is To Help Kids Have A Brighter Future…

• How I Became Miss Universe Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria

ho’s Debbie Collins?

Debbie Collins is a 24-year-old lady, who is growing and experiencing life. She is a writer and a poet. She hopes to launch a couple of books she has written. I have a strong passion for children. I grew up in South Africa. My family moved there when I was 11. I was there for about 13 years before I decided to move back to Nigeria. I studied Business Information System and hold an honours degree. I worked for about five years before the beauty pageant came. After working in South Africa, I started working at a hospital as a volunteer attending to children suffering from cancer. That was when the passion for kids began. Hence, I thought of bringing the passion for kids home to Nigeria. You know in pageantry, there are pet projects. I started a company, Three Africa, with my brother. It’s a mentorship organisation where we want to get the mindset of young Africans together to be the leaders of tomorrow. We have been doing that in South Africa and slowly we are bringing it to Nigeria.

When Smile Train came and I thought of how to bring Three Africa to Nigeria and make use of my crown, I was appointed to be an ambassador to spread awareness for children that suffer from cleft lip and palate. I’ve visited a few of them. In the coming months I’ll be going around Nigeria to visit some of them that suffer from this deformity; just to witness it myself. A lot of these children suffer from speech impediments; they cannot eat properly and some are shunned by the society. Some parents kill them and others are thrown away. But I’m so glad I can come here to help and make people know that cleft lip and palate is not a curse but a deformity, which can be treated, especially with Smile Train that treats kids for free. They are not charged for the surgery, it’s free. All they need is to meet with the doctor that works with SmileTrain. He will do everything for free.

What has been your experience as MBGN Miss Universe?

It has been interesting. It has been three months already. I still recall when I went to Las Vegas to represent Nigeria. It was a new experience – your eyes are open, the world is there and everybody is watching to see what’s happening to you. But then I have realised that other countries have passion for pageantry. They promote, love and celebrate their queens. But Africa seems not to regard them so much. We prefer our daughters going to school and getting married. They ask why you are a beauty queen and what for. But they don’t understand it can also be used politically. There is a strong political tie you can have when you have a beauty queen from this country. With that, the world may say it’s interesting and that if a Nigerian girl can become Miss World, I’ll like to see what else Nigeria can offer. But in all, it has been an awesome journey. I’ve got to meet people, learnt a lot about Lagos – because I’ve never lived in Lagos as an adult. But I’ll like to see what Nigeria has in store especially now that I live here. I’ll go around different places and people to see their way of life. Indeed, this journey has enhanced my character and my strength, too.

How did your parents to your decision to compete for MBGN Miss Universe?

I didn’t tell my parents initially. But once I was sure I would be part of it, I let them in on it. It was when I set to leave for Nigeria that I told them. All they said was if I was sure it was what I wanted to do I should go ahead. Hence, they gave me all their support, prayers and blessings. Even after I left, they called me daily and checked on my wellbeing.

Did it ever occur to you that you would emerge the winner?

I came with the mindset that I was going to work as hard as possible. I did not want to come all the way from South Africa and I’m not at my best. Whenever we went on tour, which we had in Calabar, the facilitator would tell us every detail about artifacts and I would write down everything in my jotter. I always listened well. We were instructed about our conduct and the way we carry ourselves and how we relate with ourselves – being friendly. So, I ensured I was positive; not getting involved in disturbance or gossip. I think that was what helped me. Several people said things about my personality and my character, that Miss Ebonyi is nice. I represented Ebonyi State even when I am from Anambra State. So, my personality spoke for me.

How would you assess your relationship with other girls on camp?

We were all friends. There was no fighting; we cooperated and helped one another. We all realised that we were lost, in a new environment and in a competition. So, instead of making an enemy why not be or find a friend or sister who will assist one.

How did you feel on the stage?

I felt very nervous. While we were still five on stage, I prayed really hard but was nervous too. I was even crying when I was called as top five. I was stunned. And then when we were just three, it was ‘Oh-my-God!’ So, I just relaxed and knew I would be among the finalists. I was really excited even when I called my parents.

Has this pageant changed your view about life?

I think it has because being in the hot seat, where you have a country, say Nigerian ambassador, questions like why you aren’t doing this. That is when you realise that pressure is real. But truth is, there is a lot of pressure that can be put on you to succeed, which is good. But my outlook on life has changed; now I’m no longer with my parents. I lived comfortably with them. They did everything they could for my siblings and I to put us in school. But being in Lagos all by myself has taught me that I can be on my own. But my parents call me daily to check on my well-being. But I let them know that I’m all grown up.

At what stage were you eliminated at Las Vegas?

At Miss Universe, I moved on to Vegas. We were about 89 girls from different countries. They chose top 15 and there the elimination began. The Miss Universe pageant opened my eyes to the rest of the world and how much Africa can do better with the way we let the world see us in every aspect – whether sports or Beauty Pageant and anything that involves competing with someone from another country. We can come out the best forward because we have got the ability. I feel like Miss Universe was a good experience. The show was well organised. I made friends with other girls. I liked the fact that we were family.

Can you tell us about the Smile Train?

I realised that Smile Train is the official charity of Miss Universe. It has a chapter in Africa, West Africa and in Nigeria. So, they came to Nigeria in search of a Goodwill Ambassador to spread the message of Smile Train and their mission of spreading smiles. So, being the official charity of Miss Universe, they wanted to work with Miss Universe Nigeria and that’s me.

What’s the attraction?

It was the love for children. I think also that with my experience of working with kids that have cancer. When you see what these kids suffer, you’ll be touched. They didn’t choose to have cancer or any other disease. The questions then become: how can we solve that problem? How can we get people to treat them better? Or, how can we make these kids have happier lives? These are important to me.

As an ambassador of Smile Train, what are your responsibilities?

Majorly, my responsibilities are to spread awareness. There have been 14, 500 successful surgeries carried out in Nigeria. But still a lot of people in Nigeria do not know about Smile Train. But in some obscure areas where tradition is very strong, they believe cleft palates are caused by witchcraft – bad for the society. So, they just burn or kill the baby. So, I’ll have to spread the good news that children suffering from this don’t have to be killed and make their parents know that it’s not the end of the world. They can still get help for them. These children don’t have to be shunned or dehumanised by the society as a result of their birth. However, I did a photo campaign called ‘One Smile Campaign’. I met four children. These children are scattered all over Lagos. Hence, it’s very hard to bring them together at one time. The four kids and I went to a park. We had a great time with ourselves. They have had surgeries performed on them. Now, they look very good and more confident about life. They now feel like part of their peers. Really, I love that one smile, discrimination is not good. We are going to work with the VGC Rotary Club. We will go to communities around that area to spread awareness on cleft lip and palate; that will take me out of Lagos because at the end of the month we will go to Abuja and a few places in the North and East. The idea is to meet some of the doctors and see the surgery being carried out. It is a very safe surgery of 45 minutes. It’s free and the child will come out with a brand new smile.

At the end of the day, what would you want to be remembered for as Miss Universe Nigeria?

I would love to be remembered as that girl that would encourage and rekindle your smile; one who doesn’t underestimate anyone. Ultimately, I want to be remembered as that beauty queen that never wanted to be forgotten.

Do you have any future plans?

It is to continue with Three Africa and Smile Train and work in any other capacity I can possibly be of help to Nigeria, working with youths and motivating them. To mentor kids by giving talks in schools and being engaged in women empowerment activities.

How much do you miss South Africa?

(Chuckles) I miss my family a lot. I visit them every three months.

What is your attitude to life?

I’m a very optimistic person. You know how difficult Lagos can be: heavy traffic, crazy driving, and erratic electricity supply. There are a whole lot of stuffs going on and even with our economy now. But in all, I remain positive. I lose focus on my goals. Being positive opens other doors.

What do you focus on as a writer?

I write poetry and short stories (fables). I do performances like spoken word. I have a blog. I’m reconstructing it to make it user-friendly. Thereafter, I will put up my pieces for people to read. Really, I write almost about anything, even what inspires me.

How soon do you hope to publish your works?

I have a compilation of poems. I’m looking for a publisher. I want to have copies and even if it’s to use it to raise fund, that will be great.

How will you describe your social life?

I think being a queen you have to be someone that is sociable. I’m more homely; unless there is an event I’m called to attend, I’m always reading my book and writing.

From your experience, what should beauty pageant organisers do right to enhance the contest?

Pageant organisers should render as much support as they can. Support is key. If you support the candidate you want to push to the world, you need to have a good backing system, so the candidate doesn’t fail or embarrass the country or the name of the brand. There in Las Vegas, I met other contestants. Take America for instance; at the Olympics, the participants received encouraging messages from their president and all. So, they had that confidence that their country was backing them. That’s all we need here.

What advice do you have for others youths looking for a brighter future?

Some times, we don’t even know what we want. We need to discover that as humans, and then what we want in life will be clearer. Whatever it is you have a passion for, go ahead; a passion that even when no one is paying you for services rendered, you will remain happy. And, of course, ensure to keep your values, morals and strength.

Have you at any point felt tired and wanted out?

(Chuckles) Sometimes, you feel like people are looking too much at you. You want it all to stop so you can go back to that your quiet corner. But I think you get out of it.