Helping children smile

Helping children smile

A URMC physician leads outreach and advocacy efforts that bring hope and joy to children and families around the world

A few months ago, Clinton Morrison, MD—the director of the Pediatric Cleft and Craniofacial Center at the University of Rochester’s Golisano Children’s Hospital—had no idea he’d be spending one August afternoon in a chilly dunking tank at Jellystone Park, a campground located between Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y.

Morrison got dunked about 50 times that day. It was one of many activities—alongside wagon rides, sports, and crafts—that yielded a lot of smiles at the annual camp the center hosts for children who were born with cleft palates and other craniofacial deformities.

More than 300 children, teenagers, and their families attended camp this year. Some had surgery years ago, while others had it within the last few months or years. Many have never met others who looked like them or who have faced the same issues they have. Most couldn’t smile—or struggled to do so—for a long time, due to facial deformities. Still others had issues eating, swallowing, and just getting through the day. The camp brings them together for a full day of fun and camaraderie.

“Meeting and connecting with people who have a shared life experience is validating, and it builds community,” says Morrison. “It shows these kids and their parents that they aren’t alone, and it brings them hope.”

Reconstructive plastic surgery has changed their lives.

That’s also what Morrison has seen in Antigua, a quaint ancient city in Guatemala. For the last six years, he’s led URMC’s participation in an annual medical mission trip organized through the Help Us Give Smiles (HUGS) Foundation. HUGS is a Rochester, NY-based charity that facilitates surgeries around the world on children who have cleft lips, palates, and microtia (an underdeveloped ear).

Upon arriving in Guatemala this year, Morrison; Sara Neimanis ’10, ʼ20M (Res), an assistant professor within the plastic surgery division; and about 25 other healthcare professionals from around the U.S. transformed an empty building into a topnotch surgical center within about 12 hours. Then, after screening about 100 potential patients—many of whom have traveled days to get to them—the health care teams got to work. They start each day at 7 a.m., when they begin their first of 10 or so surgeries. They finish after dark. Over the course of the week about 75 deserving babies will receive new smiles.

“Working in Guatemala was, and continues to be, a tremendous opportunity,” says Neimanis. “I see firsthand the extent of craniofacial anomalies in other parts of the world. This underscores for me the importance of the work we are doing and that I can do something that addresses some of the health issues we, as a society, face globally.”

Adds Morrison, “The mission trip is exhausting, but so rewarding. These families don’t have the same kind of access to health care that we have here. They’ve heard ‘no’ often and they’ve just about given up. Many of the kids need multiple surgeries, too, which is why we go back to the same community year after year. We get to know the families, and they trust us. It’s a huge responsibility and an incredible joy and honor to help so many people smile.”

Generous benefactors

Joseph Serletti ’82M (MD), ’88M (Res) and Bonnie Serletti ’90M (MD), ’94M (Res), recently made a $1.5 million gift to initially establish the Serletti Family Cleft and Craniofacial Humanitarian Outreach Initiative to support the Pediatric Cleft and Craniofacial Center’s Guatemalan outreach program along with an annual camp that serves patients from western New York. Ultimately, this endowment will fund the Serletti Family Professorship, which will help attract, retain, and honor exemplary faculty clinicians in the plastic surgery division.

Get involved

Contact Valerie Donnelly, Director, Philanthropy Champions and Clinical Advancement, to learn how you help improve the lives of young people with cleft palates and craniofacial disorders.

Kristine Thompson, October 2022