This Mother Is Helping Give Kids Around the World a Reason to Smile Again

From business executive to charity head, Smile Train CEO Susannah Schaefer is forging sustainable healthcare for children in need.

In an age where the business and non-profit community are constantly talking about disruption, the cleft lip and palate charity Smile Train has been steaming ahead of the curve for more than 20 years. Founded by a technology company executive originally from China, Smile Train examined existing interventions for cleft lip surgeries in developing countries and focused on creating a sustainable healthcare model: training local doctors to provide corrective surgeries and comprehensive care in their own communities.
Global Daily sat down with Smile Train CEO Susannah Schaefer to learn more about their sustainable model and her evolution from business executive, to mother and head of a leading charitable organization.
Global Daily: You were formally a business executive, what inspired you to give that up and to work in charity?
Susannah: I’ve been on the board at Smile Train since 2003, so for a very long time, and was involved with Smile Train since the beginning. Our first trip was in China, which had a very emotional connection to our founder and chairman, also the head of Computer Associates, who is originally from the country. In a sense, it is his way of giving back to where he came from. I was formally the head of marketing for Computer Associates and had lived in Asia for a few years. In the mid-1990s, we were opening offices in China during a time when things were changing and the economy was starting to grow. You saw the middle class starting to emerge, yet there remained astounding poverty.
On this trip, I met a 10-year old girl named Wang Li with a cleft. She was from outside the city of Nanjing and her family were peasants. A family with five children, they had nothing and were doing everything they could to feed them. Once they heard about Smile Train they traveled incredibly far to the hospital. To get Wang Li that surgery was eye opening to me – that parents would care that much about a child when all they could think about was how they could feed their family – but they wanted to give her the opportunity to be like her brothers and sisters. There was just so much hope so you knew that this was just something special and that something was going to come of it. It was amazing.

There’s so much opportunity to make your mark on the world, to make somebody feel good.
Susannah: Fast forward 20 years, now, looking back on that time I was very fortunate to be able to be exposed to something like that at such a young age and now to be 20 years ahead and it’s now part of my daily life. We’ve helped so many more children it’s just amazing.
Global Daily: For Wang Li, what did having that surgery mean for her future?
Susannah: Wang Li is our pride and joy, being our first patient. She was 10 years old and couldn’t go to school; she worked in the fields with her parents. Just this surgery, just closing the cleft, gave her the opportunity to go to school. Now she’s married, she has her own child; it’s a transformation.

Schaefer at home on Long Island with her family.
Global Daily: Is there a part of you, as a mother, that really identified with Wang Li’s story?
Susannah: At that time I was in my 20s, it was about the power of me. However, when I joined the board of Smile Train I had just had my son. There was definitely a change from that perspective. When you become a mother, all of a sudden, there is no being selfish. I’m here, I’m providing for somebody else so it’s totally changed my perspective of Smile Train.
Global Daily: How So?
Susannah: You just want to keep your children safe, and you’re introduced to so many scary, horrible stories of what people do to vulnerable children.
Global Daily: I can see it in your face, you’re just lighting up talking about it.
Susannah: It’s about being able to give a child a smile and give them a chance, when you know they might have been born without one.
Global Daily: You had mentioned the great lengths that you have seen mothers go to over the years. What’s that like?
Susannah: There are so many stories similar to Wang Li. I think of Osawa who is our one-millionth smile. His mother travelled 700 miles to get to our partner hospital – on foot, rides in cars. So I got to see where they lived and visit them at home in Tanzania. You take motherhood on Long Island, New York and then you take motherhood in a country like Tanzania. There were a lot of similarities; she had 4 children and she was cooking and farming and you know, but the things we do in daily life are so different.
There’s nothing like being at the hospital with them when you see the child come out of the operating room and see what they look like because it’s just the first stitch. That’s all it takes; it’s incredible to make an impact to change someone’s life.

Global Daily: What’s your advice for someone who is looking to make a career change or thinking about measurable ways to make a difference?
Susannah: It’s incredibly rewarding to make a transition into non-profit. It’s a different way to wake up in the morning. You may be tired but you can go in and change a child’s life today. It’s what drives you. You’re still running a business at the end of the day; you still have all of those wonderful opportunities and career challenges.
If you look at the times we’re in right now, I think everyone has a voice. Where as in the past, not everyone had a voice. There’s so much opportunity to make your mark on the world, make somebody feel good. There’s nothing better than doing something for someone that you know is going to change their life but also makes you feel so much better it’s great. It’s something that’s within us, I think. Selfless.
Global Daily: Absolutely. What a perfect time to be talking about this on Mother’s Day – when we celebrate mothers around the world and the great lengths mothers go to give a shot at a good life to their kids.

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