Free To Smile Foundation fixes clefts, changes lives
Two years ago, when a young Guatemalan toddler who had undergone surgery to fix a cleft lip was reunited with her mother, the tears gushed forth.
“I asked why she was crying,” New Albany resident Stacy Henry recalled of the girl’s mother. “And she said that the first thing her baby had said was ‘Mom.’ This child was maybe 2 or 3 years old and had never said ‘Mom’ — because, to say that, you need an upper lip.”
Joyful weeping has been a constant in the 10 years that the nonprofit organization founded by Henry and her husband, Bryon, has been providing free surgeries to fix cleft lips and palates.
To date, the Free To Smile Foundation has performed more than 1,100 surgeries in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Niger, the Philippines and Zimbabwe — countries where poverty and poor health care make it virtually impossible for children to otherwise have clefts repaired.
Byron, an Upper Arlington native, attended dental school at Ohio State University and was working in the late 1990s as an oral maxillofacial surgical resident at the Indiana University Medical Center when he first started working on children with clefts, eventually joining medical teams on mission trips.
“It just felt like something I was called to do,” said the 50-year-old Henry, now a surgeon at Northwest Oral and Facial Surgery, with three central Ohio locations. “I had this marvelous skill that I was fortunate enough to learn, and to give this back to kids who so needed it in the developing world is something I felt I needed to do.”
In 2008, he and his wife formed Free To Smile, which sends teams of 10 to 20 people on about a half-dozen trips a year.
Everyone who goes (including the Henrys) pays their own travel costs, enabling the foundation to put nearly all the money they raise toward the cost of surgeries (about $275 a procedure, Byron Henry said).
“We found that when people paid for this themselves, they were more invested in their journey and they are better volunteers,” said Byron Henry, who estimated that volunteers pay between $1,000 and $1,500 per trip.
The Henrys have taken both of their children — Evan, 15, and Makenna, 11 — on trips.
Free To Smile partners with nonprofits groups in each country it visits. Those groups find patients and organize “surgery weeks.”
In Guatemala, one of Free To Smile’s partner groups is Tess Unlimited. Founder Tessa de Goede said children there with cleft deformities often suffer from malnutrition (because they can’t properly breast feed) and are considered a source of shame.
“In some of these remote villages, a lot of the moms of these babies get blamed (for the clefts),” de Goede said. “Fathers may think their wife cheated on them, and that’s why this happened. There are a lot of weird beliefs.”
Because of the shame, she said, the kids don’t go outside. “Parents protect them that way, but they don’t go to school or socialize or have friends.”
The operations can be life-changing, not only for the surgery recipients but also for volunteers.
Amy Huddleston, a Pataskala resident, knew the Henrys from Columbus Academy, which both families’ children attend. Four years ago, Huddleston went on a Free To Smile trip to Ethiopia.
“I have no medical background, but I can play with the kids and hug the moms and dads, who are very nervous during the surgeries,” she said. “I bring different toys for the kids, and it’s amazing when they get a little bouncy ball that lights up, it’s the best gift they have ever been given.”
The experience inspired her, she said, compelling her to return to Ethiopia last year (with a friend’s teenage daughter) and to plan a third trip in February (with her 15-year-old son, Jake).
Megan Baloy, 37, worked in politics for years before becoming disillusioned, she said. She took a job as an office manager at Northwest Oral and Facial Surgery.
In 2012, she went with Free To Smile to Guatemala.
“I fell in love with the organization and fell in love with the role that nurses play on the trips,” said Baloy, who lives in the Harrison West neighborhood.
The experience so moved her that she began considering a new career.
In 2015, after going on several more trips, Baloy enrolled in nursing school at Ohio State, earning a master’s degree earlier this year.
“It’s just the ability to really touch somebody’s life and make a difference,” she said. “When I was younger, I thought I could change the world in politics, but on a day-to-day level, you don’t see that.
“But now in nursing, you see the change you make in somebody’s life every single day.”
The Henrys have been witnessing such changes for more than a decade.
“Cleft surgery has always been a huge passion of mine,” Byron Henry said.
“And the reason is because it’s about a 90-minute surgery, and, in those 90 minutes, you can take a child that has looked at themselves and felt powerless, and they cannot understand how this has happened to them, and you can create a brand-new person that has confidence that they can make it in life.”
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