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Education

UT student’s calling is creating smiles

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Published:   |   Updated: April 5, 2014 at 01:19 PM

TAMPA — She’s traveled to the South American rain forest for cultural preservation and participated in an international literary program in Lisbon, Portugal. In the fall, she’ll study social entrepreneurship at Oxford after a trip to Alaska to study the native heritage there.

But Katelyn Edwards found her true calling on a trip to Kumasi, Ghana, last summer, where the University of Tampa junior helped the Smile Train organization provide cleft palate surgery to children.

“I figured out my purpose,” said Edwards, a globe-trotting English major. “It’s kind of weird, because people are always searching for their purpose.”

Edwards’ passion stems from her experience with her younger brother, Spencer, who was born with cleft lip and palate. The condition affects 1 in 700 children but is a particular scourge in the developing world, where cleft children can be shunned or even slaughtered.

Edwards’ family had been involved with Smile Train, and when she earned UT’s Timothy M. Smith Inspiration Through Exploration grant last year, she pitched the trip to Africa to witness the group’s work firsthand.

It wasn’t a passive experience. Edwards tugged on scrubs and joined surgeons in the operating room at Komfo Anokye Hospital. She traveled throughout the country to visit past and prospective patients.

“I am so squeamish,” she said. “It took so much internal power. You see them lying on the table, and there was this moment where it was like, ‘Wow, this could have been my little brother.’ This was my little brother. It was an amazing moment.”

Her takeaway: There aren’t enough treatment centers, and children who have the condition are stigmatized and often barred from attending school.

So she started the Smile Initiative, hoping to raise $200,000 to build a cleft clinic in Kumasi. Edwards learned that helping cleft children involves a lot more than a free surgical procedure.

Because Smile Train spends the vast majority of its donations on treatment, her initiative would piggyback on the main organization to provide much-needed infrastructure.

“You have a clinic that is small, with no waiting room or air conditioning. There’s no access to bathrooms or a cafeteria,” she said. “A lot of times these mothers are so destitute they can’t afford a hotel room, so if the child stays overnight, they’re sleeping on cardboard boxes outside the hospital. That was really a disconcerting thing. I would have to walk over these sleeping bodies in the morning, and I couldn’t imagine my mom lying there.”

Edwards’ vision includes a modern cleft clinic and ultimately a Smile School providing an education tailored to the complications of cleft.

She’s already getting attention.

Last week, Forbes.com featured her story. She’s lining up sponsors to support her participation in the St. Anthony’s Triathlon on April 27; to help, go to www.thesmileinitiative.org.

Last week, New York City-based Smile Train performed its millionth surgical procedure. It has 2,100 partner surgeons in 1,100 hospitals in 87 countries.

Adina Wexelberg-Clouser, the organization’s community relations manager, called Edwards “an incredible young woman. We feel very lucky to be working with her.”

Meanwhile, Edwards’ little brother continues his treatment — cleft care is an ongoing process as the body grows — and is about to graduate from high school in Winter Springs. He’s headed to college in Pennsylvania.

“I’m really proud of the man that he’s become. He’s gotten so much more extroverted and confident. It’s been an amazing transformation for him,” Edwards said. “I look up to my little brother so much.”

Edwards will spend her time in England studying how to bring economic prosperity to developing countries. She hopes to someday start her own non-profit group.

“I’ve got a lot of big ideas, but I’m only 20 years old, so I’ve got time to figure it out,” Edwards said.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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