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Operation Smile

Associate Professor of Communication Disorders Kelly Mabry and her daughter, Teagan Mabrysmith, with a young friend in Ecuador

With the help of her daughter and Southern Connecticut State University graduate students, Associate Professor of Communication Disorders Kelly Mabry is addressing an international epidemic and helping to bring medical attention to an underrepresented group: thousands of children — and even adults — worldwide who are unable to smile because of a facial deformity like a cleft palate.

A cleft palate happens when the roof of the mouth contains an opening into the nose. These disorders can result in frequent ear infections and feeding, speech, and hearing problems. Each year in the United States, about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate. Worldwide, it is estimated that a child is born every three minutes with a cleft — about one in 500-750 births. Left untreated, the consequences of cleft lip or palate can be devastating.

Mabry, who has taught at Southern since 2011 and is a craniofacial speech pathologist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, has been passionate about craniofacial disorders for decades. She began her education at Southern in 1982, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication disorders. In 1989, she took a position on the Cleft Palate Team at Newington Children’s Hospital; she’s been there ever since. In 1996, she was the director of the team when they moved to Hartford as Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and six years later, Mabry went on her first medical mission to the Congo with Operation Smile.

In her words, “My passion for international cleft care only increased.”

When Mabry started teaching at Southern, she advocated for an Operation Smile Club, which was realized in 2012 (she is still the club’s adviser). She continued her international efforts, traveling to Bolivia with Operation Smile in 2015. She joined Global Smile Foundation (GSF) that same year and traveled through the organization to Ecuador in 2016 and 2018, where she met patients and conducted speech evaluations. GSF is a non-profit organization that provides cleft care throughout the world; it helps those living where the incidence of cleft is often higher than average and the access to cleft care is very limited.

“I love traveling and getting to know the culture and communities that I visit,” Mabry said. “We are definitely not visiting tourist locations, and that is what I love. The relationships that I have developed with community providers and families are amazing.”

Last March, she was able to bring two Communication Disorders graduate students and her 13-year-old daughter, Teagan Mabrysmith, with her through GSF to Guayaquil, Ecuador, on a 10-day humanitarian outreach trip.

“Southern’s Communication Disorders department takes pride in involving both graduate and undergraduate students in research opportunities and field experiences,” Mabry said. “My students in Communication Disorders are always eager to hear about these missions, and I try to involve as many students as I feasibly can during a busy mission. I am working on developing a course where I can bring more students and piggyback off of missions so that we can do speech camps for a few weeks. The feedback I had last year was so affirming — the students loved the experience. So much so that they both joined GSF upon graduation and are coming back with me this year as veterans!”

Her daughter, also inspired by her mother’s outreach, recently launched a Save-a-Smile campaign to raise $35,000, which GSF can use to cover the expense of a Nasendoscope, a scope used to observe the closure of a patient’s palate. GSF currently does not own its own portable scope system.

On March 8, Mabry, her daughter, two current students, and two graduate students in the Communication Disorders program returned to Guayaquil, again through GSF. Mabry is conducting research during this mission, and her students are directly involved.

“I am more passionate about international medical opportunities in craniofacial disorders every time I go abroad,” Mabry said. “I am very fortunate that my experience in the field affords me the opportunity to work with some of the best surgeons in the world who volunteer vast amounts of time for this cause. I am working collaboratively with the GSF team to develop standards of care for children in underdeveloped nations so that all children with craniofacial disorders can be guaranteed quality treatment.”

Now that is something to smile about.

Operation Smile

Kelly Mabry just wants to help put a bright shiny smile on the faces of children all over the world – especially those who suffer from a cleft lip or palate.

And after assessing more than 300 children in Bolivia this fall as part of a week-long volunteer effort to help kids with a cleft, the associate professor of communication disorders at Southern has made a difference.

“I am so blessed to be able to do this. I feel like the lucky one in being able to make a difference in these kids’ lives,” Mabry said.

Mabry, an expert on craniofacial disorders, participated in Operation Smile’s outreach effort at the Hospital Japones in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Operation Smile is an international children’s medical charity that provides reconstructive surgery on kids who have facial deformities, such as cleft lip and palate, in developing countries.

For Mabry, the effort in Bolivia marked her second volunteer effort in a foreign land. Four years ago, she traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a similar mission, also coordinated by Operation Smile.

“Both nations need help, although Bolivia has a somewhat better infrastructure to provide people with medical care,” she said. “Nevertheless, even most of the poorer people in the United States would live like kings if they took their money to live in these countries. That’s the kind of poverty in which many of the poor kids are living.”
The Mansfield resident noted that 115 surgeries were performed to help those in need as part of Operation Smile’s recent effort, which included an international team of doctors and other health professionals. Mabry was responsible for prioritizing the surgical needs of the children, noting that those who had any functional difficulty in the ability to eat and drink properly were put at the top of the list for surgical interventions. She also screened the children for speech problems that were related to cleft palates.

A cleft is an opening in the lip or the roof of the mouth that occurs during early pregnancy. A child can suffer from a cleft lip or cleft palate, or both. If left untreated, this birth defect can cause serious medical complications, such as malnutrition, because of the functional difficulty in eating or drinking.

Mabry is already planning her next volunteer effort – this one coming in March in Guayaquil, Ecuador, as part of an initiative sponsored by the Global Smile Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts that also specializes in caring for people with cleft lip and palate deformities.

She created an Operation Smile Club on campus several years ago – a club that seeks to help others in the Third World with similar health problems. Thanks to a fundraiser conducted by the SCSU club, Mabry brought with her about 50 toothbrushes that she distributed to the Bolivian children.

Mabry’s passion for craniofacial disorders sparked her to pursue a Ph.D. in communication disorders, which she earned in 2002 from the University of Connecticut. She has served on craniofacial teams as a speech pathologist since 1988 and is currently a member of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Craniofacial Team in Hartford.