Lucy Hale has spent the past seven years in the limelight as Aria Montgomery on Pretty Little Liars, but it turns out there’s a lot we don’t know about this big-hearted star. After Hale asked for donations to the charity Smile Train in lieu of birthday gifts this year, she took the partnership a step further with a trip to Mexico City, and InStyle got a look inside her “life-changing” journey.
The PLL star traveled with Smile Train, an international children’s charity that funds corrective cleft lip and palate surgeries, and quickly learned that there’s so much more to it than a simple 45-minute procedure. “It’s actually pretty much a lifelong journey,” she told us. After the initial lip surgery, patients have a second palate surgery and then endure a procedure that implants a bone graft from their hip into their mouth.
The healing process doesn’t end there. “Then there’s speech therapy and there’s counseling and dental work. It’s sort of ongoing, and so what Smile Train does is they provide all the financial support for these families and these patients, which is pretty amazing because it’s not just one and then they’re done. It’s a lifelong thing.”
VIDEO: Inside Lucy Hale’s “Life-Changing” Trip to Mexico City with Smile Train
While she's never worked in medicine, the 27-year-old told InStyle she's had a lifelong interest in children born with clefts. She attributes the fascination with surgeries to her mom, a labor and delivery nurse. “I just always would research it and kind of just was fascinated at how it all worked and how these kids were born this way,” she said. “I’m the girl that watches surgery videos online and documentaries. I just am fascinated by the work that doctors can do.”
From her curiosity stemmed an intense desire to get involved. After she began fundraising for Smile Train on social media, the charity proposed a trip and Hale was “immediately on-board.” In her three-day journey to Mexico City, she met with families preparing for surgery, visited pediatric hospitals, spoke with former patients, and even witnessed a surgery first-hand.
Keep scrolling for an exclusive look inside her trip, and watch the heartwarming video above to see the action for yourself.
1. Hale meets Smile Train patient Miguel Adair Bautista Perez and his mom
On Thursday, Sept. 8, the Pretty Little Liars star landed in Mexico City and immediately went to visit a patient home. "We met a little boy named Miguel who was four months old, and he’s about to have his first surgery within the next coming weeks. So we met his mom and dad," she said. "He was the happiest baby I’ve ever seen."
2. The star poses with Miguel, family, and local Smile Train staff
"I was just blown away by how positive these people are. The families are so involved in their kids’ lives and I think that that really makes a difference. It sort of just put things in perspective,” Hale said. “Things that I consider problems are not real problems. There’s a sense of extreme gratefulness, for obviously all the work that Smile Train does, but that we took time out of what we’re doing to come and visit them.”
3. Hale meets a Smile Train cleft choir in Mexico City
The actress was excited to meet patients on every end of the spectrum, both before and after surgery, to truly understand the work that Smile Train does. "I really wanted to see everything firsthand and meet patients, and parents and doctors," she told InStyle. "They’ve provided one million surgeries, believe it or not."
4. Hale and Smile Train CEO Susannah Schaefer meet with doctors at a pediatric hospital
On the second day of her trip, the actress traveled two hours out of the city to visit Hospital del Niño DIF Hidalgo in Pachuca, Mexico. "The scenery there is amazing. Everything there’s so colorful, so it was a really fun drive out there," she said. "They’ve done over 3,000 cleft surgeries just at this hospital over the course of Smile Train working with them. So we met with the surgeons, the orthodontists, the dentists, the therapists, the ear, nose, and throat doctors there. We got to see every step of the process up close at this hospital."
5. The actress and CEO share a smile with cleft patients
Hale was amazed by the gratitude and positivity of the young patients. "They had put together this ceremony for me and Susie, the CEO of Smile Train who was there in Mexico with us. There were probably about 20 cleft patients there and there was one girl who sang a few songs for us. It was just really special to have everyone there."
6. The star sits in on speech therapy class at a pediatric hospital
The initial corrective surgery is just the beginning. Hale followed patients through every step of their journey, including speech therapy class at a hospital in Pachuca. The PLL star was so inspired by her journey that she plans on taking another trip with Smile Train. "I think I’m going to go on another trip with them in Haiti, which will be really interesting," she revealed. "In Mexico City, the hospitals are really nice, but in Haiti, it’s third world, so it’s going to be very different."
7. Hale visits Smile Train cleft patient Andrea Soto Hurtado at her home
On Friday night, the team traveled up into the mountains to visit little Andrea, who is preparing for surgery in a few months. "It’s just amazing how welcoming and grateful this family was to have us there," she said. "They cooked us food as a thank you so it was really neat to have authentic Mexican food," Hale shared. "Side note, the food is incredible in Mexico City. I had like 10 empanadas over the course of three days. Just so good."
8. Hale observes cleft surgery at Hospital infantile Privado
On Saturday, the actress watched as Dr. Jose Maya performed surgery on 4-month-old Emiliano Davila Galindo, which she says was the highlight of her trip. "He let me stand directly behind his shoulder and watch the surgery, and he explained everything that he was doing step-by-step. This man, he’s a plastic surgeon usually, but he donates his time to do these surgeries for free. That’s what’s amazing, is that all the nurses, all the doctors that do this, they do this out of the greatness in their heart, because they’re not getting paid. It was just incredible to see this little boy’s face change over the course of 45 minutes," she said. "It was just something so special to be a part of, and we got to see the mom see her son for the first time after the surgery, which was just, you know, everyone was in tears. It was a really cool moment to be a part of."