In Ghana, Katelyn Edwards first noticed the pothole, polka dot roads with street vendors walking precariously through the lines of traffic. Once she got outside the urban buzz of Kumasi, the warmth of hospitality took over.
Edwards, an English major with art and economics minors, was in Ghana this July as a volunteer with Smile Train, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide free cleft surgery to children in developing countries, train doctors and medical professionals, and provide speech therapy, dentistry and orthodontics.
Edwards stayed with Dr. Solomon Obiri-Yeboah, a plastic surgeon at Smile Train’s sponsored partnership, Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital.
“More than simply offering me a place to stay, the entire Yeboah family treated me as one of their own,” Edwards said. “The children called me Auntie Kate.”
Despite the 5:30 a.m. rooster wake up call, Edwards said she enjoyed her host family, helping get the children ready for school before she headed to the hospital with Yeboah. Edwards joined surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses to observe the cleft surgeries, blogging about the experience for Smile Train and photographing before and after photos of the children as well as gathering informal data from the children’s mothers. In the afternoons, Edwards joined the hospital social worker on follow-up calls to healing patients in rural communities.
Edwards, of Orlando, was this year’s recipient of the Timothy M. Smith Inspiration Through Exploration Award. The award was established to honor the life of Smith, a lawyer by trade, whose true passion was traveling the world.
Edwards wanted to work with Smile Train because she grew up in a family that supported the organization. Edwards’ younger brother, Spencer, was born with a cleft lip and palate; however her family was able to cover the expenses to cover his necessary surgeries. Smile Train helps families that aren’t so fortunate, and the Edwards are long-time supporters.
“This cause has always been near and dear to our hearts, and to get a chance to do something so hands-on is amazing,” Edwards said.
In addition to her UT travel scholarship, she has raised more than $4,500 to cover additional travel expenses as well as cleft surgeries for eight Ghanaian children. Her advocacy efforts are important to changing the stigma of those born with clefs.
“In a developing world where superstition supplants science, people do not understand that a cleft is caused either by genetics or environmental influences, such as maternal smoking or alcohol consumption,” Edwards said. “Through my work with the Smile Train and Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, I hope that we can dispel such an ignorant understanding of clefts.”