Sadie’s Smile

Alumna turns a mother’s worst nightmare into help for disfigured children

Sadie Grace Ablard was so moved by photos of children with cleft palate that she asked others to give donations to help them instead of bringing her Christmas gifts. That winter, Sadie’s “gifts” funded corrective surgeries for two children.

As Sara Showalter Ablard ’92 skated with her daughter last August, she worried. None of the children at the roller-rink birthday party were wearing helmets, and management didn’t offer them.

When Sadie fell and hit her head, Sara helped her up. When it happened again, Sara headed for the door.

The party was just a bad memory by bedtime. After a bath and a story, Sara snuggled in close to “soak up some Sadie” and tucked her in tight. It would be the last time.

At 5, Sadie had played violin, begun learning French, and taken up knitting. Sara wasn’t surprised when Sadie wanted to raise and release a butterfly; what caught the mother’s attention, though, was the look on her daughter’s face when the child realized the beautiful insect wasn’t coming back.

Now butterflies remind Sara that Sadie won’t be coming back, either.

“They’ll fly in front of my face and cling to me,” said Sara, a marriage and family therapist who lives in Purcellville, Va. “Maybe they were there before; I never noticed.”

Nearly 2 million Americans suffer traumatic brain injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 50,000 die. Last summer, those statistics came calling for Sadie – and Sara, who lives alone now in the house with the swing set out back and the crayon-colored unicorn on the fridge. The techniques she teaches others to help push through pain and fill emptiness with purpose have helped her survive the biggest challenge of her life – and turn heartbreak into help for hundreds of children.

On May 12, Sara celebrated what would’ve been Sadie’s sixth birthday cheering on runners in a 5K she organized to benefit Smile Train. The group sponsors surgeries for children with cleft lip and palate, children whose photos touched Sadie so much she’d asked for donations for them at Christmas instead of gifts for herself. The procedures allow the youngsters to eat and speak properly – and to smile. Big, beaming grins, like Sadie’s first when she was just 8 weeks old.

Sara plans to fund 1,913 of those smiles – one for each day her daughter lived.

“It’s touching when people find us as a way to turn tragedy into a positive,” said Smile Train’s Anna Lawrence. “People like Sara are special.”