GREAT BARRINGTON -- Over the past five years, students in the peer mentoring program at Monument Valley Regional Middle School have helped make comfort dolls for Operation Smile, the organization that provides medical support to children born with facial deformities such as cleft lips and palates.

Some peer mentors, along with school adjustment counselor and mentoring program adviser Dom Sacco, were talking about the Smile Dolls they were working on when fifth-grader Elizabeth Pevzner piped up and said, "I had something like that when I had my surgery."

Pevzner, who is mentored by eighth-grader Shanti Nelson, surprised them all.

Monument Valley Regional Middle School fifth-grader Elizabeth Pevzner, right, tells members of the Thursday Morning Club of Great Barrington about having
Monument Valley Regional Middle School fifth-grader Elizabeth Pevzner, right, tells members of the Thursday Morning Club of Great Barrington about having had four surgeries since birth to repair her cleft palate, and the support she’s received in school from her peer mentor Shanti Nelson, left. (Jenn Smith / Berkshire Eagle Staff / photos.berkshireeagle.com)

Cleft palate, a condition where the tissue does not join to form the roof of the mouth, is often accompanied and characterized by a cleft lip, a condition where the skin and tissue are visibly slit.

Pevzner has a beautiful, shining smile, which doesn't indicate that the 10-year-old has undergone four oral surgeries and will likely have her fifth by age 13.

On Thursday, she, Nelson and Sacco spoke to the members of the Thursday Morning Club of Great Barrington, which supports Operation Smile through its affiliation with the General Federation of Women's Clubs and with Monument Valley. Sacco introduced Pevzner as living proof of how helpful such volunteer efforts are.

"You've given our school and our children the opportunity to give back to the community," he said.

Elizabeth is the first-born child of Angela and Matt Pevzner of Great Barrington. Angela said it was a shock to them when Elizabeth was diagnosed with a cleft palate and also a condition known as tongue-tie.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated that each year 2,651 babies in the United States are born with a cleft palate and 4,437 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate. The exact cause is unknown, though some links have been made to genetic and environmental
factors.

Angela described how, because of the condition, her daughter lacks a uvula, the connective tissue that usually hangs down from the soft palate at the back of the mouth. It affects things like a person's speech and gag reflex. As a baby, even though Elizabeth was fed with special bottles, she struggled to suck down the formula and was prone to choking.

"I try to teach people and the students that cleft palate is not just a facial deformity," said Miriam Cervera.

Cervera, a member of the Thursday Morning Club, along with parent mentor Sofia Sakharov, also volunteers at the school to teach about Operation Smile (operationsmile.org) and how to make the Smile Dolls.

The dolls are soft, blank human forms used by therapists and doctors as a tool to explain the surgical process to children and to help children express their sense of self-image.

As a peer mentor who helps and has become friends with Elizabeth, Shanti Nelson said she's learned how children will often draw faces on the dolls.

"The face that they draw on it before the surgery tends to look sad or upset. After surgery, the children draw a new face on the other side of the doll, and it tends to look really happy," Nelson said.

In additional to the dolls, volunteers also make children's hospital gowns out of colorful fabrics and make stuffed animals for kids too. Elizabeth, for example, has had a couple of stuffed dogs, which she names "Ike." When she's gone for her surgeries at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield, her doctors not only prep her for surgery, but put a doll-sized medical cap and gown on Ike too.

"The dolls are an excellent thing to put in a child's hands when they enter the hospital. It's comforting to the children, and to us as parents too," Angela Pevzner said.

Growing up, in addition to having to take time to recover from surgeries, Elizabeth Pevzner has gone through speech therapy programs, occupational therapy sessions, and has also had to have tympanostomy tubes or T-tubes put into her ears. Elizabeth said she has fielded a lot of peer questions over the years about her medical condition; her mother said this week was the first time Elizabeth has spoken about her experience to the public.

Elizabeth said she's glad to have Nelson to talk to and help her manage a normal, everyday life.

"Mentors are good to have because they help you with your homework and go through your problems," said Elizabeth, who is now an aspiring peer mentor.

Nelson said working with younger students has helped her too. "I've learned that I really like helping people, and now I want to be a doctor."