I grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended a very prestigious private school called “The Columbus Academy” since Kindergarten. Growing up, I traveled a fair amount in the United States with my immediate and extended family and always loved it. I had only traveled outside of the country to Mexico and the Caribbean before I got to high school, but I realized I wanted to do more as I got older. In middle school and during 9th grade, I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety. I could never find any value in myself, I didn’t understand why I was here or what I was supposed to do or how I could make myself and others happy. I saw no purpose in my life and had no goal in mind because I felt that if I gave myself a purpose or set myself a goal, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill or achieve it. I felt stuck for years. However this feeling began to drastically change when I was invited by Mr. Henry my 7th grade advisor and social studies teacher to travel to Niamey, Niger with “Free to Smile” an organization that was founded by his brother, Byron and wife, Stacy. “Free to Smile” gives free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries and free dentistry to children and adults in countries that don’t have very affordable or available medical care. I was only in 9th grade when Mr. Henry invited me to go on this trip. Even though, I had no idea what it would all be like and had never done anything like that before, but I was excited and couldn’t turn down the offer. I had always loved his class in 7th grade and loved having him as an advisor. He taught us with a global perspective which I had never experienced in any other class before. We learned all about the different cultures of the world, their religions, environments, people and the issues they experienced in the past or were currently experiencing. I always did well in the class and found it especially interesting and enjoyable, and I think he knew that.
In the summer of 2012 after my freshman year, I traveled with Byron, Mr. Henry, and a team of doctors and dentists to Niamey, Niger. When I was in Niger, I worked with them helping out as a dental assistant. This task involved taking pre-op and post-op pictures, checking up with and playing with the kids, doing paperwork, and spending time in the OR helping in any way that I could. It was all exhausting, but well worth it. I literally saw a group of people changing lives. These kids with cleft lips and palates are severely looked down upon by their villages and communities. They have speech, eating and drinking problems and are forced to live much harder lives simply because of a facial deformity that is 100 percent fixable. It’s so much more than a cosmetic correction – it can completely change a person’s life for the better, and I got to experience that every day I was there. With a relatively small and inexpensive procedure, these people get the opportunity to live much better lives.
Apart from cleft lips and palates and the need for dentistry, I immediately saw so many more issues the country of Niger faced. I knew of the stereotypes, but never actually knew what parts of Africa were like before I travelled there. No one can understand it until they see it firsthand. There’s so much poverty and suffering, with such a large population lacking the simple necessities we always take for granted – food, water, clothes, shoes, a roof over our heads. Men without legs were begging for money, an infant was left to die because her mother had died in childbirth and the village saw the child as a cursed “murderer child,” people were starving and suffering and it angered and saddened me beyond belief.
But I needed to see that. It changed me. The entire trip changed me and I couldn’t be more thankful for that opportunity. When I got back home, I started to get more involved in the organization as well as Service Board at my school. I helped fundraise for Free to Smile, I helped lead the blood drives at school, I went to as many service events as I could, I told everyone about my experiences and about Free to Smile. I did anything I could. At the end of my junior year, I was elected the Vice President of our Service Board and have spent countless hours this year busy with that (our Service Board is our school’s largest club with a little more than 100 members). I’ve continued traveling throughout high school, and have been to Belize, Panama, France, Costa Rica, and I traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this past fall with Free to Smile. I’ve fallen in love with the organization, with service, and with traveling and I don’t know if I would ever be this happy if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to first travel to Niger. I love what I do and now feel that I can do anything with my life. I want to help people in this country as well as those abroad in any way that I can, and am so thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given in order to realize that and begin that journey.