Five years ago, when no charity could help, a Coram family and a Setauket orthodontist came together to get a disfigured little girl from Nairobi named Saline the surgeries she needed to live a more normal life.
Saline became the inspiration for Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, a charity dedicated to helping one individual at a time with dentofacial deformities such as cleft lip and palate so severe no one else can help them.
They kept up their support for her over the intervening years.
When she became sick again recently they brought her back to the U.S. to continue her treatment at Stony Brook Hospital.
A grim equation
In a squalid village in Nairobi a young girl named Saline, already born with a cleft palate, was also suffering the after-effects of a rare and usually fatal bacterial infection called Noma.
Almost unknown in industrialized nations, the disease is associated with poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions. Noma generally affects the face and mouth, eating away at tissue and leaving victims scarred and disfigured, unable to chew, speak or swallow effectively.
While there are organizations dedicated to helping sick children around the world, Saline required much more care than anyone was able to provide.
It is a grim equation that many charities face: use what little resources they have to help as many people as possible, while leaving behind some of the neediest individuals to suffer alone.
The genesis of an idea
Leon Klempner is an orthodontist from Setauket who retired in 2016 from Coolsmiles, a practice he had founded in Port Jefferson almost 40 years ago.
He always felt the drive to help others in need. His volunteer work led him to travel the world on over a dozen missions, offering his orthodontic skills to cleft palate teams for Smile Train, Operation Smile, and other organizations.
“Each mission I’ve gone on there is always a segment of the population that has such severe craniofacial deformities that we had to turn them away,” Dr. Klempner said.
It was all a part of that same painful equation all charities face, but it did not make it any easier.
“Everyone comes with such great hopes and expectations,” he said. “For a handful out of four to five thousand who come, no charity can help them.”
After one such mission with volunteers from Stony Brook Hospital to establish a multidisciplinary medical team in Nairobi, Dr. Klempner was contacted by someone from Smile Train who thought he could help this little girl who had survived Noma and needed more than the charity could give.
That little girl was Saline.
“That was the tipping point for me,” Dr. Klempner said. “I can’t help every kid all over the world, but I can at least help one of them.”
The result of that call for help from Africa was the genesis of Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, a charity designed to help one child at a time who has no other option for treatment.
He was determined to flip the result of the equation that had plagued charities for so long and dedicate all his resources to help one specific child who needed it the most.
Dr. Klempner and a close-knit group of volunteers got to work establishing the charity, raising money and planning for Saline to get the surgery she needed to start her on the road to recovery in her native country. They raised $10,000 and contacted a surgical team in Africa that said they could do it.
“At first it seemed to be successful, but then they emailed me that the surgery failed,” Dr. Klempner said.
The tissue they had grafted to her face did not have enough blood supply.
“We were worse off than we started, $10,000 in the hole and had our hopes dashed.”
Understandable shy, severely deformed, poor, and living a life in unsanitary conditions, Saline was shunned by her peers for the way she looked and sounded. She had stopped attending school.
Like most little children in her situation, Saline knew almost nothing about modern life or the larger world outside her little village. She had only experienced one failed attempt to help her heal.
What Saline didn’t know was that Dr. Klempner was formulating a new plan — and making it even more ambitious.
“I felt the responsibility to Saline,” he said. “I was going to do whatever I could.”
His idea was to bring Saline to the United States and get her the help she needed here.
He brought together more volunteers, contacted people he knew at Stony Brook Hospital and collaborated with colleagues who jointly decided the operations were best done in the U.S., and that the surgeries would make a good teaching case.
Included in that initial team of medical colleagues was Dr. Alexander Dagum, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Stony Brook Hospital. Dr. Dagum is also a member of the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids board of directors.
“Dr. Dagum was instrumental in getting the surgeries done at the hospital and the first person I contacted,” said Dr. Klempner.
Dr. Klempner then went on a campaign to raise more money to bring Saline here — to take care of her long-term.
That was when the Tame family entered the picture.
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Five years ago, Michael and Kerri Tame had three girls who were all patients of Dr. Klempner’s orthodontic practice. The Tames were no strangers to opening up their home to people in need.
The family had hosted kids who were having open heart surgery at Stony Brook through the Gift of Life Program. So when they heard about Dr. Klempner’s plans, they offered to help in the form of finding other host families to house Saline and also offering their own home up for her.
“She ended up having three different host families,” Michael Tame told GreaterPortJeff from his home in Coram.
Despite the cultural differences, some things were very much the same.
At the time, Saline was 12 and had never really experienced the things that American kids take for granted. Her favorite modern conveniences ended up being electronic devices like cell phones, video games and television, like most other kids her age.
According to Dr. Klempner, Saline stayed for a year and had surgery to close up her cleft palate and some other surgeries to fix the damage the disease had caused her face.
When it was time for her to go back home, a donor stepped up to pay for Saline to have an education there as well.
“For the last five years she has been in a boarding school and one volunteer has paid for it all,” Dr., Klempner said.
Saline wasn’t totally out of the woods.
Eventually, she contracted an infection in the area where her face had been damaged, and last year Smile Rescue Fund for Kids decided it was time to bring her back. She will be in the U.S. for about a year while she undergoes additional surgeries, including one to help her breathe better.
“Her face has significantly improved and continues to be improved,” said Dr. Klempner.
Tame describes now-17-year-old Saline as a shy girl and says she has grown a lot since her last trip. She can speak English well, if she knows you.
“I would say now she is a typical American teenager,” Tame joked, though at first it wasn’t easy. “When she first came here it was culture shock for her.”
Now, the Tames are looking into enrolling her in school so she doesn’t fall behind in her education.
She is socially active in a youth group at Genesis Church in Medford.
“She looks forward to going,” Tame said.
The entire family is involved with Saline and say they consider her as just another family member.
Their eldest daughter is studying to become a nurse and has taken on some of the responsibilities to be by Saline’s side as she has her surgeries.
While there are expenses related to hosting a child like Saline, the Tames say the return on their investment is immeasurable to everyone involved.
The last time she had to go back home, the Tame family was heartbroken and they are not looking forward to her having to leave again next year.
“It was hard the first time,” Tame said. “It was rough. You don’t know if you will ever see her again. You can’t just make a phone call and talk to her.”
Saline also aspires to become a cosmetologist in her home country and everyone is helping her to achieve that dream when she goes back next year.
Dr, Klempner said that while there are some donors who make a large commitment to Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, most of the donations are small — in the range of $5 to $10 increments. They get donations from around the world, some people even anonymously, sending just a few dollars in an envelope.
The charity is also working to help other children in need and has helped improve Saline’s village by donating solar lamps to replace dangerous and expensive kerosene powered ones the residents rely on at night, especially the children who need the light to study.
They also raised money to buy rainwater collection tanks.
Dr. Klempner knows that nobody’s future is guaranteed, but with his new equation he is sure that Saline’s odds are much better than they were before.
“She’s just a sweet kid who got dealt a bad hand,” he said. “We’ve at least given her an opportunity.”
To donate to The Smile Rescue Fund for Kids through PayPal click here. To donate with a tax deductible contribution by check or money order: Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, Box 766, Setauket, New York 11733.
Make checks payable to: Smile Rescue Fund for Kids.