Shriner’s help forever alters little girl’s life

Group paying for operations to fix disfiguring cleft palate

Jerald Conyers, aka “Grumpy” of Grand Junction, talks to 3-year-old Zoey Smelser of Fruita.

Nearly three years ago, Chelsey Smelser and her newborn daughter, Zoey, left their home to pick up Chinese food at a restaurant on Orchard Mesa.

At the same time, Jerald Conyers, a local Shrine Club member, left his home destined for the same restaurant.

They met in line. Conyers noticed that Smelser’s baby had a bilateral cleft lip and palate.

“I asked her if she’d ever heard of the Shriners Hospital,” Conyers said of the chance meeting he describes as fate. “It was just meant to be that we would meet there at the same time.”

Conyers told Smelser that Shriners hospitals were places where children with medical conditions, such as Zoey’s, receive free pediatric specialty care, and he got Smelser the information about applying for the assistance.

“Our lives would be different if we wouldn’t have met him,” Smelser said.

Within two months, Zoey received her first operation at the Shriners Hospital For Children in Los Angeles.

A cleft lip and palate is a facial deformity where the lip and palate fail to close during fetal development in the womb. Zoey’s first surgery closed her upper lip. A year later, Zoey received a second surgery at the hospital to close her palate. Last October, a cosmetic procedure was performed to reshape her lip and nose.

Zoey faces at least one more surgery, if not more, to completely correct her deformity. She will need dental and bone implants, and faces the possibility of more cosmetic procedures.

By the time Zoey reaches the age of 7, the only sign that she ever had an abnormality will be a tiny scar on her lip. “It’ll look like she has a cat scratch,” Smelser said.

Smelser cannot say enough about the exemplary care Zoey has received from Shriners Hospital For Children.

“It’s been a godsend, really. It’s the greatest thing that ever could have happened to us,” she said.

Not having to worry about the bill has relieved a lot of stress for Smelser, 24, and her husband, Matthew.

“Of course, the medical bill is kind of scary and hard, but it’s nice to have help,” Smelser said.

Throughout the years, the Smelser family has remained friends with Conyers, who has followed Zoey’s experience with the Shriners every step of the way.

“I just want her to be able to grow up and accomplish anything she wants to do,” Conyers said.

The friends meet at fundraisers and other events that benefit the Shriners Hospitals, such as IHOP’s National Pancake Day on Tuesday. The local IHOP gave away free short stacks of their buttermilk pancakes to each customer who donated to the Shriners Hospital.

Smelser said it felt good to see so many people filling up the restaurant for a good cause Tuesday.

“Not only are they helping my child, there are kids (at Shriners Hospitals) that have had much worse things happen to them,” she said.

This is the fifth year the Grand Junction IHOP location has raised money for the Shriners. All of the donations are given to the local club, which passes the money along to the national organization.

Conyers and other Shriners were dressed as clowns Tuesday, laughing, thanking customers and handing out colorful balloons to the children dining in the restaurant.

Money raised by the Shriners supports 21 hospitals and two burn centers, including facilities in Mexico and Canada. The centers treat children, free of charge, for such ailments as orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft palates. It also pays for the family’s transportation and lodging during the child’s hospital stay.

The local restaurant hoped to raise $2,000 Tuesday. Last year it took in $1,400 for the Shriners. Nationally, IHOP hopes to raise $1.75 million this year.


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