When Susannah Melchior Schaefer ’90 arrived in 2014 at a remote village in Tanzania, she was greeted by the entire community with a ceremony in her honor and a feast of chicken.
But more importantly, she was greeted by the smiling face of 6-year-old Osawa Owiti—the recipient of Smile Train’s 1 millionth cleft surgery.
“I have the best job in the world—seeing this kind of life change,” said Schaefer, the chief executive officer of the international nonprofit that is the world’s largest cleft repair and comprehensive cleft care organization. “He is just thriving, and his parents—and the whole village—are so happy about this transformation. You could just see the absolute delight and smiles on the faces. This is what I love about Smile Train.”
“ I am often asked, what drives me. It’s seeing Smile Train’s local programs in action. I cry every time I observe a cleft surgery on a child we’re helping. I like to think I have a small part in making that happen.”
— Susannah Melchior Schaefer ’90
Cleft lip and cleft palate are much more than cosmetic issues, as they often have debilitating health impacts, including problems speaking, eating and breathing. Because incidence rates of cleft are often higher in under-developed countries with high rates of poverty and poor access to health care, children and their families are frequently ostracized in their community due to a lack of understanding and awareness of cleft, Schaefer said.
“In some places, parents were hiding their children with cleft from society rather than getting them help,” Schaefer said. “Or their neighbors assumed that the parents of children with clefts were being punished for something that they had done or thought: ‘You laughed at cripples, you were not a nice person, you looked at the lunar eclipse.’ These are the things we were hearing, so we know awareness of cleft is still our No. 1 challenge.”
Osawa was identified through a mobile phone recruitment program pioneered by Smile Train’s partner hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and partially funded by Smile Train. The program engages ambassadors to identify cleft patients throughout Tanzania and uses mobile banking to fund patient travel to the hospital. Osawa and his mother then took the 700-mile trip to the hospital with Smile Train’s support.
“That’s our second challenge—patient mobilization,” Schaefer said. “We have a grant program to help hospitals support patient travel to the medical facilities.”
Schaefer had made the trip to the family’s village to celebrate the organization’s milestone surgery and to enable the doctor, Dr. Edward Wayi—one of the country’s only plastic surgeons—to see the impact his medical care has made on the children and their families’ lives.
Dr. Wayi is one of 2,100 medical professionals who partner with Smile Train to provide more than 120,000 surgeries in 85 countries every year.
Following the “teach-a-man-to-fish” model championed by founder Charles B. Wang, the organization focuses on training local doctors to perform cleft repair surgery in their communities. Those doctors then go on to train other doctors, creating a long-term, sustainable system.
“Susie’s trip to visit the 1 millionth patient certainly stands out to me,” said her husband, William Schaefer ’91. “It validates Smile Train’s work. It was a powerful moment. I am proud of her and what’s she’s achieved. Changing children’s lives at the scale she’s been able to do is remarkable.”
William said he admires his wife’s unrelenting drive and commitment throughout her career.
“I’ve never seen anyone who works as hard as she does,” William said.
But the quality that drew them together is their shared desire for adventure and a willingness to try new things—in addition to older siblings who initially attracted them to SUNY Oswego (Stephen Melchior ’89 and Dr. Cynthia Schaefer Bacon ’83).
Bold Career Moves
A few weeks into a new job at her then-employer Computer Associates on Long Island, she agreed to manage the launch of Techno Vision, a book written by the company’s founder, chairman and CEO, Charles Wang. He was impressed with her work and created opportunities for her to continue to market the book in Asia. Schaefer took a chance and, with the complete support of her new husband, accepted the role.
Schaefer became the director of marketing in Asia for CA Technologies, where she built the organization’s presence throughout the region and hosted the first regional CA World conference in China. She later became a vice president and special assistant to Wang after serving as the company’s vice president and director of international marketing.
When Wang retired from Computer Associates in 2002, he invited Schaefer to join him as his assistant in his new venture as the owner of the New York Islanders hockey club.
Wang also asked Schaefer to serve on the board of a charitable organization that he founded, Smile Train. After serving as a member of the board for over 10 years, Schaefer became chief executive officer of the organization in 2013. In this role, she oversaw the rebranding of the non-profit and a revitalization of its fundraising, public relations and marketing efforts.
From Board to Boss
Shari Mason, vice president of communications at Smile Train, said Schaefer took what could have been a tricky situation during the transition from board member to boss to establish an open and collaborative work environment.
“Susie is very passionate about our cause, and it’s great working with someone whose whole heart is in it,” Mason said. “Through her, I’ve learned the importance of teamwork and not working in silos. She empowers people and trusts them to do their job.”
Mason worked closely with Schaefer on helping the nonprofit update its modes of communication with potential donors and supporters. The company decided to rebrand itself, launch a new web site and move away from relying on direct mail to push messaging to supporters.
“We wanted to have a deeper relationship with our donors,” Mason said.
The organization has developed a strong social media presence and has amped up its celebrity ambassador program, corporate partnerships, event-based fundraising and youth ambassador programs.
“Celebrities are so important in helping us elevate our brand and reach wider audiences,” said Schaefer, who has worked with a wide range of celebrities, including Lucy Hale of Pretty Little Liars, reality TV star and entrepreneur Kylie Jenner and supermodel Christie Brinkley. She gave examples of how the stars partner with the charity, such as Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics, launching a special edition lip kit to raise almost half a million dollars to provide new smiles to over 1,800 children born with clefts—which landed Smile Train on Jenner’s reality TV show, Life of Kylie.
Through Smile Train’s partnership with the Miss Universe Organization, Schaefer has the opportunity to work with the reigning Miss Universe, and international and state titleholders who serve as ambassadors to help raise awareness for the organization and cleft.
In addition to leading an organizational rebrand, Schaefer has worked to help secure funding for hundreds of thousands of new smiles, expand cleft surgical training and education programs throughout the world and establish organizational partnerships in Haiti and Rwanda.
Troy Reinhart, the senior vice president of development at Smile Train, said Schaefer makes his job easier.
“She has an open door policy so anyone can talk to her,” he said. “It’s great for our donors to be able to meet our CEO, and she’s so personable.” Reinhart said she also made some more pragmatic changes like allowing individual departments to put together their own budgets and identify its priorities.
“She put more strategy behind our business practices,” said Reinhart, who was one of the organization’s first employees. “Because she came from our board, she’s able to advocate on our behalf. She speaks our language and can interpret that to the board.”
Service with a Smile
In addition, Schaefer led the team in developing Smile Train’s groundbreaking Virtual Surgery Simulator, which combines voiceover, text labels and actual intra-operative surgical footage within an interactive, animated 3D context for an immersive learning experience. This multilingual cleft surgical training tool enhances the organization’s “teach-a-man-to-fish” model.
“As a technology entrepreneur, Charles [Wang] has encouraged us to use technology to advance the level of care and the level of training,” Schaefer said. “We also built a charity that has data to inform future growth and our understanding of cleft on a global scale.”
The company developed Smile Train Express, a digital medical records database that contains a record for every patient, including a before and after photo, that in addition to being part of the system by which the organization reimburses hospitals for their Smile Train surgeries, also creates a resource for researchers and medical professionals studying cleft.
Under Schaefer’s leadership, the organization has received GuideStar’s 2017 Platinum “Seal of Transparency” and is a 2017 Top-Rated Nonprofit, according to greatnonprofits.org.
“I am often asked, what drives me,” she said. “It’s seeing Smile Train’s local programs in action. I cry every time I observe a cleft surgery on a child we’re helping. I like to think I have a small part in making that happen.”
Her passion inspires those around her.
“She is so compassionate,” Reinhart said. “When she’s speaking about waiting with the mother whose child is having cleft surgery, you know she is empathizing with what that mother is going through. Her love for our vision to help the children is moving.”
Mason recalled the moment in a staff meeting when Schaefer talked about meeting Osawa and his family.
“When she was sharing the story, the whole staff could truly see how his life was changed forever,” Mason said. “We also felt proud of the work we do. I will always remember that moment—seeing her passion and conviction that every single child deserves to have a chance for a healthy and productive life.”
Schaefer shares that passion with her husband and children, who support her every step of the way.
“I have an amazing husband and children who love what I do,” she said. “They get it. They understand how important this work is. You have to love what you do, and I do. I am so grateful.”
—By Margaret Spillett
By the numbers
- Founded: 1999
- Number of employees: 100
- Surgeries per year: More than 120,000
- Number of children born each year in the
developing world with cleft: 170,000
- Average cost per surgery: $250
- Partner Hospitals: More than 1,100
- Partner Doctors/Medical Professionals:
More than 2,100
- Number of countries: 85+
- Children helped by Smile Train services: 1 million+
Learn more at smiletrain.org