CARLSBAD — For 20-year-old Zulema Gillett, the Carlsbad-based nonprofit Fresh Start Surgical Gifts changed her life.
Gillett, who has been a patient of the group for four years, said she’s been able to build her self-confidence thanks to the surgeries she’s received.
“My self-esteem has improved so much thanks to Fresh Start, it has made me feel better about myself,” said Gillett, who was born with Goldenhar syndrome, a rare congenital condition. “It has allowed me to come out of my shell. At the moment I am going to college to become a dental assistant. I want to become a dental assistant because I want to be able to help other kids just like I am being helped.”
Fresh Start Surgical Gifts is a nonprofit that provides the gift of reconstructive surgery to disadvantaged infants, children, and teens with physical deformities. Teaming up with groups such as Rady Children’s Hospital and volunteer surgeons, the nonprofit helps nearly 400 children each year.
This year, the nonprofit said it’s still accepting applications from children and their families despite the devastating effects of the pandemic.
“Our goal has always been to remove barriers and provide access to highly specialized medical care for disadvantaged children in need,” Michelle Pius, chief development officer for Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, said. “The needs of the children to lead better lives don’t stop because of a pandemic, unfortunately. They don’t choose to be born with a physical or cosmetic deformity or to be scarred in an accident or by abuse. Fresh Start is a tremendous safety net for children with nowhere else to turn for the medical care they desperately need to live a better life.”
Although elective surgeries were temporarily put on hold as a result of the governor’s order, Pius said they hope to resume surgeries in the fall. Surgery weekends are currently scheduled for September, November and January.
“Every child is special, and we want to give those in need a medical opportunity that in many cases is life-changing,” Pius said. “In these uncertain and scary times, we want to put the word out that we want applications so we can get them in the queue to start the review and approval process. Once we are able to re-start surgical weekends when they lift the non-emergency surgery ban, we can hit the ground running to help these precious children.”
Since Fresh Start’s inception, more than 8,100 children have received no-cost charity surgery and medical care valued at over $42 million with a volunteer base of about 500 annually.
Gillett, the Temecula resident, who said she discovered the nonprofit in high school, said the surgeries she’s received have not only improved her confidence — it has improved her speech. She wants other children to have the same opportunity despite the challenging times.
“It is important to support this amazing life-changing organization during the pandemic because it gives not only kids hope but their families as well,” Gillett said. “It gives them hope that they know once this pandemic is over they will get the treatment needed for their child without having to worry about paying anything or not being able to tell their kids that they cannot afford it. It will give them something to be excited about during the pandemic.”
Those children are what drive Fresh Start’s mission. But, public support is needed more than ever to support that mission as well.
“As you can probably imagine, with the increase in demand and need, we need additional funding,” Pius said. “Fresh Start runs on individual and foundation support with 100% of all donations directly benefiting our medical program to help these families and children.”
Pius said she expects to see an increase in applications as the world endures another recession.
“Due to the current climate we anticipate an increase in applications and are gearing up to meet the need,” Pius said. “With financial uncertainty and unemployment skyrocketing along with the loss of employer-sponsored health insurance, families should not have to choose between rent and medical care for their child.
“Families are experiencing a high amount of anxiety about what the future holds. They needn’t worry about whether their child will be able to receive corrective medical care.”
To apply a child in medical need, donate and/or learn more about Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, please visit, www.freshstart.org
Hoa Quach has 15 years of experience in journalism, garnering multiple awards ranging from investigative reporting to feature writing. She’s been named a “Woman Who Means Business” by the San Diego Business Journal, featured in BuzzFeed during International Women’s Day and recognized by the California Legislature for her work. You can reach her at email@example.com.