Stitches mark the upper lips of the moldable stuffed animal bears. The bears are defined by their scars — symbols of former cleft palates and lips. But for the children who grasp their own “Claire’s Bear” as they enter the surgical room, the bear reminds them of the bright future that the procedure promises.
Undergoing nine surgeries is no small feat, especially for a small child. Claire Crawford ’13 was born with a cleft lip and palate that made eating and speaking a challenge every day. After nine surgeries, Crawford’s lip and palate were fixed, but she never forgot the struggle she had gone through.
She became active in the Cleft Palate Foundation, an organization designed to raise awareness about cleft lip and palate.
As her passion to raise awareness for cleft lip and palate grew, she found a way to encourage and support kids who suffered from clefts. She created “Claire’s Bears,” teddy bears with stitches in their lips and tags in their ears that provide information about cleft lip and palate.
“It was amazing to show other kids that, this is what happened to me and is what you’ll go through,” Crawford said. “Many kids even named their bears.”
Crawford then began to help out with Operation Smile, an organization that raises money for people who cannot afford cleft lip and palate surgeries.
She started the first Operation Smile club in Mississippi at her high school and went on to found another Operation Smile club at Millsaps College. As a transfer to the College of William and Mary, Crawford joined Logan Disch ’14 to create the College’s first Operation Smile club.
“We had both been members of Operation Smile’s Executive Leadership Council before coming to William and Mary,” Disch, Vice President of Communications for the College’s Operation Smile club, said. “Since we were working together and had support from people who had been involved in Operation Smile before, it was simple to get the club started and to encourage people to come.”
In its second year at the school, the club has grown in membership and has added events to support Operation Smile. The members hope to raise awareness about cleft lip and palate and to fundraise for Operation Smile.
“Operation Smile is a really good opportunity for underprivileged kids to get a new life,” Michelle Chen ’14 said. “With cleft lips and palates, they can’t eat, they can’t sleep and 10 percent of them die before their first birthday. Many of them can’t afford the surgeries. It’s only $240 for the surgery, and it changes their lives. It’s so practical for us in America, but unaffordable for them.”
Their first fundraiser of the year, Spooks for Smiles, is a 5K race on Oct. 29. Students are encouraged to wear their Halloween costumes to the race, and all proceeds will go to Operation Smile.
Kelsey Glass ’14 became involved in Operation Smile during her freshman year after realizing the effects of the surgeries on her own family. Her brother and sister, Kevin and Leah, were both born with cleft lips. Kevin received the surgery in the United Sates while Leah underwent the surgery in China. As a sixth grader, Kelsy remembered Kevin’s surgery.
“What to Americans is such a simple surgery isn’t simple and readily available in other countries,” Glass said. “It’s hard for me to put words to the feeling because I saw it through my brother’s surgery. It’s truly life-changing and without it, he wouldn’t be able to thrive.”
Glass and eight other students from the College joined more than 800 college students at the International Student Culture Exchange in Beijing, China over the summer as the first representatives from the College to attend the conference. There they were able to meet other leaders of Operation Smile clubs from around the world while generating new ideas for their own club.
“The conference was life-changing. I just wanted to get back and get started on all of our ideas right away,” Glass said.
Students are encouraged to join the club, even if they have no prior experience with Operation Smile.
“We want to share our passion with other people through this club,” Disch said. “This is an organization that can make a difference in the world.”
During a mission trip to Hue, Vietnam, Disch felt the effects of the organization first-hand. As he was playing with the kids before their surgical examinations, he noticed a 14-year-old boy who sat by himself in the corner. Marked with a cleft lip and a cleft palate, the boy, Han, had felt excluded due to his facial abnormalities.
“His whole life, he’s been shunned by society because of his cleft lip and cleft palate,” Disch said. “He had gone to school but had been harassed by his peers so much that he didn’t return. His situation just made me really sad. I just thought to myself, ‘How can I make a difference in his life? How can I make things better?’”
Disch approached him with a ball that served as a globe. They bonded as they pointed out places on the globe, showing each other where they lived. Han began to smile.
“For Han, the smile changed it all,” Disch said. “From the first day I saw him, I smiled at him, and when we began talking, a smile just opened him up.”
Han received his surgery at the end of their week-long mission trip. The marks of his cleft lip and palate that had hindered his ability to make friends and attend school were gone.
As the children recover from their surgeries, they grasp onto their own “Claire’s Bear,” wearing the scar that unified them in the beginning, but sporting a new smile that will last.
“A smile represents hope that something unexpected can happen,” Crawford said. “For these children, it’s symbolic of a life that they couldn’t have dreamed of before.”