Amsterdam High seniors help bring smiles to Mexico’s poor

Amsterdam High School seniors Heather Graff and Elizabeth Druziak gave up going to their prom to hel
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Amsterdam High School seniors Heather Graff and Elizabeth Druziak gave up going to their prom to help children in Mexico in what they called “an opportunity of a lifetime.”

The teens returned Saturday from Guadalajara, Mexico, where they spent 10 days helping children and adults while on a mission with the organization Operation Smile.

While they didn’t get to wear ball gowns and attend a prom after-party, the teens had their own party in Guadalajara, where other members of the mission surprised them with tiaras during a celebration on their last night.

Operation Smile, an international organization based in Norfolk, Va., provides surgery for children with correctable facial deformities such as cleft lips, cleft palates, facial tumors and burns. Operation Smile is active in 25 countries. Mission teams of specialists are usually accompanied by two or three students who are responsible for helping the medical personnel and educating children on various health topics, including oral hygiene.

Graff and Druziak are both part of the Operation Smile student chapter at Amsterdam High School. The group, in its second year, has 32 student members and raised $4,000 for Operation Smile, enough to fund about 15 surgeries.

The club was founded by current senior Michela Catena, who went to Cambodia on a mission last year. After learning about Catena’s experiences, Graff and Druziak decided they also wanted to be part of the organization.

The pair attended Operation Smile’s yearly leadership conference held last summer in Ireland and were then eligible to apply for a mission. Despite the prospects of missing their prom and softball team’s sectional tournament competition, they went.

“I like to help people,” Graff said. “Practically no one gets the chance to do this.”

“You could really see the progress we were making,” Druziak said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The mission team completed 90 surgeries and screened 133 people. Druziak said people traveled for hours to receive the free surgery.

Graff and Druziak were responsible for helping the doctors, nurses and specialists with the patients and educating children about health care.

Graff said she believes they were educating children about fundamental and significant hygiene practices.

“We were really educating them,” she said. “We weren’t just giving presentations, they really didn’t know about a lot of this stuff.”

Both said their favorite part about the trip was interacting with the patients.

“The kids were really fun and so cute,” Druziak said.

“It’s amazing how excited they were just to get a toothbrush,” Graff said.

Graff and Druziak brought 2,000 donated toothbrushes they had solicited along with a suitcase full of toys.

None of the children the two dealt with spoke English, so they communicated either through translators or by using Spanish learned in school.

“It didn’t get us very far,” Druziak said with a laugh.

The teens rose about 5:30 a.m. daily during the trip. Starting at 7:30 a.m. the two assisted with patients and surgeries. Graff said they got to get as close to the surgeries as they wanted.

“We could look over the doctor’s shoulder and see exactly what was going on,” she said.

Neither of the teens wants to be a doctor.

Graff will attend Keuka College in the fall and intends to study education with a dual major in math. Druziak is attending the Fashion Institute of Technology to study fashion merchandising.

This summer, eight members of Amsterdam High’s Operation Smile chapter are attending the leadership conference, this time at the University of San Diego, and will be eligible for a mission.

“We are very proud of these girls,” student adviser Annette Kinne said. “They attended every meeting and did a lot of fundraising. We had fine representation this year.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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