When Makenna Henry was 9 years old, she begged her parents to allow her to accompany them to Guatemala.
It was the New Albany resident’s first mission trip with her parents, Stacy Henry and Dr. Byron Henry, cofounders of the nonprofit Free to Smile, which organizes trips around the world to provide free cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgeries and dental care in impoverished parts of the world.
Makenna, now 11 and a fifth-grader at Columbus Academy, recently took her third mission trip with her parents, visiting Ethiopia from Feb. 1 to 8. Also making the trip was another Columbus Academy student, 16-year-old sophomore Jake Huddleston, who accompanied his mother, Amy, a franchise owner of Home Instead Senior Care in Granville.
Free to Smile began in 2008, Stacy Henry said, after Byron Henry was inspired by a trip he made to Colombia during his residency for oral maxillofacial surgery. Now, the couple’s nonprofit takes medical teams, including surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists from all over the world, to provide the cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgeries.
The trips also include a photographer and an administrative volunteer, Stacy Henry said. Some trips have included translators, high school students, dental students, residents and fellows.
The goal, Stacy Henry said, is to serve while also helping others learn about the world and inspiring them to give back.
“We are giving back, but we’re also getting a ton out of the experience, as well,” she said.
The organization schedules trips to Guatemala twice a year and to Ethiopia, the Philippines and Zimbabwe once a year, Stacy Henry said.
The surgeries may be performed on babies as young as 3 months old, with a minimum weight of 10 pounds, Stacy Henry said. Many times, the children don’t see another child with a cleft until they come to the hospital for surgeries.
In a third-world country, a child born with a cleft faces disadvantages for jobs or marriage, and he or she often is shunned, Stacy Henry said. People believe God is punishing the child’s family, she said.
Helping the child and teaching family members the cleft isn’t their fault is “very healing in multiple ways,” she said.
Both Henry children – Makenna and her older brother, Evan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Columbus Academy – have made mission trips with Free to Smile, Stacy Henry said.
She and her husband waited until Evan was 10 to take him on his first trip because of the serious nature of what can be seen, she said. They had planned to do the same with Makenna, but she couldn’t wait to go, she said.
Giving back to others is in Makenna’s blood, Stacy Henry said, and it is a part of who she is.
For Makenna, that first trip at 9 years old was an opportunity to see her father’s surgeries and do a good deed.
She enjoys helping people who don’t have enough money to pay for surgeries, she said.
During the Ethiopia trip earlier this month, Makenna said, she stayed in the area where children heal after surgery and where families wait to be taken into surgery.
She played with the children and comforted the mothers who were anxious, she said.
One time, Makenna said, she gave one of the mothers a bracelet she had brought on the trip. She also got a chance to take photos of her father during his surgeries.
Another one of her jobs on the trip, Makenna said, was to apply wound-closure strips to children’s lips after the surgeries to help them heal.
She said she enjoyed working with the medical team and wants a career in the medical field, such as a nurse or veterinarian.
For Jake, a Pataskala resident, the trip was eye-opening. He went along after his mother, who had taken previous mission trips with Free to Smile, asked him to consider it.
Jake’s job was to photograph the children, both before and after surgery, he said.
He said seeing the way the surgeries changed the children’s faces was “amazing.” So, too, was watching the mothers’ faces when they saw their children post-surgery, he said.
Jake said he would make another trip to Ethiopia.
“It’s totally different when you’re there,” he said. “It’s so surreal.”