It is difficult at any age to learn about rejection, denial, and
disappointment, but for children born with a cleft lip and palate,
becoming a social outcast is far too common. As Erika Celeste reports,
an American teenager in the southern state of Mississippi is doing her
best to help kids with clefts overcome their difficulties.
Crawford has grown up like many American teenagers. The 17-year-old
loves to read, play tennis and do artwork, but she's also a little
different because she was born with a cleft lip and palate.
The facial birth defect - in which the lip and the roof of the mouth do
not fuse properly - affects about one out of every 700 babies
worldwide. Besides the social stigma of facial deformities, these
children often have trouble feeding, because they cannot form a proper
seal to nurse or suck on a bottle. They are also at a higher risk for
upper respiratory and sinus infections, and later often need speech
Depending on the severity of the deformity, children
often undergo multiple surgeries to correct the jaw and soft palate,
and to help teeth come in properly. "Even though my scar wasn't that
noticeable," Claire says, "it was part of me and I had surgeries all
the time." She had to have nine surgeries.
The surgery that started a mission
operation she had when she was 12 changed her outlook. Surgeons took a
piece of bone from her hip and grafted it to the roof of her mouth to
stabilize her palate. Claire remembers that it hurt a lot, and she
could not walk for a couple of weeks. "But I also realized when I
looked around and saw all of the gifts and flowers for me, I realized
how lucky I was. I realized I could do something for other kids who
were like me."
Claire didn't know how she could help,
so she began researching on the Internet, and found the Cleft Palate
Foundation. On its home page, the
Foundation was selling teddy bears with stitches in their lips, just
like a scar from cleft palate surgery.
That struck a chord with
her, since she remembered having a stuffed animal with her for each of
her surgeries. "You can't take your mom past the doors for the
[operating room]," she explains. "You have to have something else to
hold on to. It reminded me of how important those stuffed animals had
been. I realized that maybe if it had meant so much to me, that it
could be something helpful for other kids."
Claire decided to
see how many bears she could buy and give to local children facing
cleft surgeries. She began to educate the community through speaking
engagements and before she knew it, the project known as Claire's Bears
She admits, "I never expected it to be such
a big project. My orthodontist gave the money for my initial goal of 24
bears and within two months, I had raised enough money for 250 bears."
But she didn't stop there; she continued to raise more money for
Claire's Bears and send the stuffed animals all over the United States.
Bringing reconstructive surgeries to poorer countries
Claire learned about Operation Smile. The U.S. medical charity
coordinates more than 30 reconstructive surgery missions annually in 26
countries, from Brazil, to Kenya, to India. Since 1982, it has helped
more than 115,000 children.
While most American babies born with
clefts get reconstructive surgeries in the first few months of life,
children in many developing countries do not, and face a life of
discrimination and isolation.
Claire knew she had to
help. Earlier this year, she not only raised money to donate bears to
Operation Smile, she went on a mission with its surgeons to the
Philippines. "The children were just really sweet," she recalls. "They
were all grateful for the opportunity to have surgery. They were
nervous about surgery itself, but so excited about the chance to be
normal." She gave each one a bear and went into the operating room with
them. "They would fall asleep with the mask on and a bear in their
Pediatrician Paul Ruff - who has worked closely with
Claire and her charity - says for kids who often carry deep emotional
scars, this one act of kindness can be life-changing. "I think when
kids get this bear that has the little scar on its face, that it's been
through this surgery, I think that's something that reminds them that
one, they are special and two, that it's going to be okay. That they
can get through it, other people have gotten through it and Claire is a
great testimony to that."
While reconstructive surgeries are
fairly straightforward and inexpensive, Ruff says researchers are still
trying to determine why clefts occur and how to prevent them. "There's
some genetic factor," he explains, "but that may be just a genetic
predisposition to an environmental factor."
Back home in
Mississippi, Claire Crawford is still doing her best to help kids with
clefts in the United States and around the world. She began a club at
her school to raise money for Operation Smile. To date, it has raised
over $10,000, enough money to give 42 youngsters a reason to smile.
says it shows that teenagers can make a global difference. "I'm
continuing to do that and so long as there are kids born with a cleft,
there's a need for bears, and surgeries."