August 31, 2007
A Success Story Well Worth Duplicating
Gallup Catholic student brings smiles
to kids with birth defects
By Melissa Nicholson
Catholic News Service
Bringing a smile to someone's face is not as easy as it may seem, especially when that face is deformed from a birth defect.
Gallup Catholic High School senior Blair Kezele has worked hard since her sophomore year to bring smiles to faces through Operation Smile, an organization that works to help correct facial deformities in children worldwide.
"My little cousin had bilateral cleft palate," said Kezele, 17, of why she decided to become involved in the organization.
Clefts occur in 1 in 700 newborns and in more males than females. A cleft results when the usual joining of the lip and palate does not occur during early pregnancy and an infant is born with an opening in the lip or palate.
Operation Smile is a nonprofit organization that works to repair childhood facial deformities, as well as advocate for health care for children and families by building public and private partnerships.
Kezele's hard work in raising funds for 150 surgeries in the past year, as well as building awareness of Operation Smile, earned her a trip to Ireland. She attended the 15th Annual Operation Smile International Student Leadership Conference held at the University of Limerick July 30-Aug. 3.
"We wanted to send her to Ireland, but it was too expensive," said Emily Kezele, her mother.
Operation Smile later offered to pay for Kezele's airfare in recognition of her hard work.
"We wanted her to come and participate," said Wade Hooton, Operation Smile's director of student programs. "We decided to cover that for her because of her effort on our behalf."
Hooton said Kezele's involvement in Key Club, a community service organization, introduced students to Operation Smile.
"Because of Blair and her efforts, hundreds if not thousands of students were introduced to Operation Smile," said Hooton. "She's really been a leader in that regard, in getting students aware and involved in Operation Smile."
Operation Smile has more than 450 student associations and Kezele said there were more than 450 students at the conference.
Kezele said her most memorable experience during the conference was seeing a young girl's dream to work with orphans in Africa come true, after the organization helped raise about $3,000 to make it possible.
"It's pretty cool seeing someone's dream come true," she said.
Kezele said she works to promote Operation Smile by approaching people with letters and working with other states' organizations, including Arizona's, among other activities. She is looking forward to working with Cibola High School and Bosque Prep School in Albuquerque in the near future to raise money for Operation Smile.
"I think we'll try and put on a fashion show," said Kezele.
However, Kezele said she's also planning to apply in October for a mission that gives students hands-on opportunities.
"Operation Smile trains you for a mission and you help the doctors who are doing the surgeries," she said.
She said missions are established throughout the world, including Bolivia, Ethiopia and Brazil, to name a few countries.
At Gallup Catholic, Kezele is involved with volleyball, softball and cheerleading. Her future plans include going to college on the East Coast and starting a Smile Club.
"We're real proud of her," said her mother.
Kezele noted that her father, Floyd, is also proud of her and was the person who originally got her hooked on Operation Smile.