A Mother's Personal Mission

Andrew McLeod

NBC's Jennifer Salke and 12-year-old son Henry help bring hope to cleft palate victims who otherwise might be on their own.

They took him away. People were all over him. Just hovering around him. I couldn't see his face at all." NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke is recalling the tense moments following her son Henry's birth. "My husband was leaning over him like this," she says, hands cupping her head in imitation. "I remember thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, there's something mortally wrong with my child.' "

She continues, a now 12-year-old Henry seated beside her in her Universal City office, "When they turned and came toward me, I had one of those moments where all of the sound dropped out." She pauses. "I thought to myself, 'These people are going to say something to me right now that's going to change my life forever.' "

What the doctors shared with her that day did change her life, but not for the reason she thought it would.

Henry was born with a cleft lip, a birth defect so common worldwide that every three minutes a child is born with that or a cleft palate. Fortunately for Jennifer, who for nearly a decade served as a high-ranking executive behind such hits as Glee and Modern Family at 20th Century Fox TV before joining NBC this summer, it was a relatively easy fix: Two early surgeries erased any real trace. (She then had twin daughters who do not have cleft conditions.)

It isn't so easy for victims elsewhere in the world, where one in 10 children born with a cleft condition will die before their first birthday, often from malnutrition. Since 1982, Operation Smile has made this its cause, providing more than 200,000 free and fairly simple surgeries to those with these and other facial deformities in developing countries.

Looking for a way to do more, Henry created a fund-raising page on the Operation Smile website in 2009. In a matter of months, he had raised $20,000, and he and his parents were introduced to Smile founders William and Kathy Magee through mutual friend and Smile board member Billy Bush.

In the two-plus years since, Henry has become one of the charity's most active youth ambassadors. "He comes to us with a pad of paper and starts listing all of these ways to raise more money for surgeries," says Kathy Magee, ticking off examples such as T-shirts and DJ benefits (his moniker is DJ Smile).

After a couple of years of stateside fund-raising -- Henry's second round raised $48,000, his third recently began -- and multiple speaking engagements, mother and son journeyed to Rio de Janeiro for their first nine-day Smile mission. (Operation Smile hosted more than 150 missions in 2010, providing on-location surgeries and care for cleft victims.)

In Rio, they spent time with patients, educating them and their families. Jennifer traveled with a picture of Henry as a cleft-lipped baby, which she showed often as a reminder of what these doctors would be able to do. The pair spent time in the operating rooms, which Henry admits was "a little scary."

On Sept. 23, Jennifer and Henry will be honored alongside Zachary Levi, Sue Tsao and Giuliana and Bill Rancic at the annual Operation Smile Gala in Los Angeles. From there, the Salkes will begin planning their next trip: a Smile mission to Africa.