The smiles could be seen from the nosebleeds as a group of children hit the ice at a recent New York Islanders game at NYCB Live at Nassau Coliseum. This was not your average group of kids.
Five elementary school students went to the stadium in mid-January thanks to Smile Train, a nonprofit founded by late Islanders owner Charles B. Wang. Smile Train, led by Syosset’s Susie Schaefer, is part of the Islanders’ Hockey with a Heart initiative, dedicated “to helping make a difference in the community by working with and for causes close to the hearts of our fans.”
And that’s exactly what Smile Train does. The organization trains, funds and provides resources to medical professionals in more than 90 countries to provide a completely free cleft lip and palate repair surgery right in the midst of their own communities. Schaefer’s team helps lead the way for this impactful medical procedure, which in some cases, takes as little as 45 minutes.
Smile Train was founded in 1999 with Wang serving as the chairman and co-founder. He gave an initial $30 million gift, covering administrative expenses and stayed active with the nonprofit until his death in 2018. Now, Schaefer is dedicated to continuing his legacy by providing free surgeries for more than 1.5 million children across the globe.
Not only did Schaefer drop the puck for the matchup against the New York Rangers, but the kids, who currently attend the Sylvan Avenue Elementary School in Bayport, joined her on the ice. She spoke with the Tribune about the nonprofit’s relationship with the Islanders, detailing what Smile Train does and how people can help support the cause.
Q: How did Smile Train get started?
A: Smile Train is a global nonprofit. We help children, primarily in the developing world, who are living with cleft lip and palate. We have a sustainable solution to treat their cleft. We do this through a holistic and comprehensive approach to treating cleft lip and palate. Finding the child, making sure the child is healthy enough for surgery, through surgery and through a comprehensive after care, which can include speech therapy, orthodontics, dental treatment and social support to the family. Our sustainable model is unique in that our focus is training a local medical professional through training and education, providing them with the funds and resources to treat their patients. We’ve been around for 21 years now, starting in 1999. Since then, we’ve helped more than 1.5 million children around the world.
Q: What does it mean to you to bring some kids to great events like the Islanders game?
A: Well, it’s unique. Smile Train was actually founded by Charles B. Wang, who was the founder and chair of Computer Associates, which is a Long Island-based company. He was an Oyster Bay resident and the former owner of the New York Islanders. We have a very special and involved relationship with the Islanders. Even after he sold the team and they have a new owner [Jon Ledecky], they have embraced Smile Train, including us in the Hockey with a Heart program.
Q: What was it like to see the kids’ reaction when they took to the ice?
A: The kids that we brought actually weren’t cleft patients, but they’re community supporters of Smile Train. Each of these kids were from the Bayport-Blue Point School District. They have two very special speech teachers there, Christine Monahan and Laurie James-Katz, who are long-time Smile Train supporters. They got the Sylvan Avenue students involved in community efforts to help kids in other communities. They fully appreciated knowing what they’ve done over the years for Smile Train. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Q: What are some goals that you have in 2020?
A: Our goals for 2020 is to continue the important work that we are doing throughout the world. We want to help as many children as possible and enhance the ability to provide the full comprehensive cleft care approach. We want to provide the support areas, including the orthodontics, the psychological support and speech therapy, into all of the hospitals that we work with around the world. Raising awareness is also extremely important. We work in areas around the world that there’s a lack of cleft awareness for parents to fully understand there is hope if they’re able to bring their child with cleft to a Smile Train partner hospital for full treatment, as well as to understand what cleft is. There is help and hope out there for them. It’s a strong and long-term sustainable system to treat cleft. This is Charles Wang’s vision. It’s unique that it started on Long Island, and now, it’s his lasting legacy. He started something truly amazing.
To find out more about Smile Train, how to get involved or to donate, visit www.smiletrain.org.