After months of schoolmates calling her names to her face and whispering behind her back in school’s hallways, 15-year-old Renata from South Carolina had enough. Feeling terrible about her looks, she didn’t want to go to school and spent most of her time at home.
“I didn’t want to leave the house because it got so bad,” Renata, whose family is declining to reveal her last name, tells PEOPLE.
Her mother, Michelle, agreed to homeschool Renata and took her to counseling, but nothing was making a difference.
“I did take her for counseling and tried talking to her myself to make her feel better and not to pay attention to what the bullies were saying,” says Michelle. “Everyone has their breaking point. No matter how tough you tell your kids to be, everyone has their breaking point and for her, this was it.”
For Renata, her life was changed by The Little Baby Face Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Thomas Romo III over 10 years ago that provides plastic surgeries free of charge to children up to 21 years of age who have birth deformities and whose parents can not afford surgery.
Children who are Medicaid-eligible go through an application process – available in English, Spanish, Chinese and Russian – that is then reviewed by the organization’s medical advisory board of 30 doctors in 14 different specialties who volunteer their services.
“We take indigent children and provide for them free reconstructive surgical services for any facial birth defect for children from zero to 21 years old,” Dr. Romo tells PEOPLE. The organization has performed surgeries free of charge on hundreds of children since it began.
When Renata’s mother applied to the foundation, the case was evaluated by the medical board who diagnosed her with mild to moderate hemi-facial microsomia – her nose, cheekbone and chin bone were smaller on one side. Dr. Romo, who also serves as Director of Facial Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at North Shore/LIJ, Lenox Hill Hospital and Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital, and the entire medical board also read the letter that Renata’s mother had shared about kids tormenting her daughter.
“She hadn’t been to school in two years because she was being bullied,” Dr. Romo says. “She had seen a psychologist who said something needed to be done for this kid or she is heading for anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.”
The medical board of the foundation approved Renata’s case and Romo did the surgery last year. Today, Renata is back at school, is on the basketball team and attends teen nights twice a week.
“It is definitely different,” Renata says. “I haven’t had any problems after surgery and no one is saying anything negative about me. The whole thing has been better.”
Renata’s mom says that she has seen a huge difference in her daughter.
“I felt this was the best option for Renata,” she says. “I would say to parents this should be a well thought out decision. Parents need to be supportive, but the final and ultimate decision should be left up to the child and in the end, it should be the child’s decision and not because someone else is saying, ‘Go do this.’ ”
While The Little Baby Face Foundation sees many extremes in the defects they correct with free surgeries, many of theie patients have known bullying because of their appearances. One 10-year-old girl whose face was asymmetrical was bullied until her surgery and is now happily in school. A young man who was sometimes kicked off the bus and had his lunch tossed around the cafeteria found that the surgery he received lifted his self-esteem and helped him cope.
“I don’t think surgical services are the answer to bullying,” Dr. Romo says. “But the extensive, persistent kind of bullying that happens now reaches into the privacy of children’s homes. We’re doctors, so we don’t often ask a lot about what types of bullying kids are having to deal with, because we’re focused on their medical care and their diagnoses. We handle all facial birth defects from mild to moderate to severe.”
For Renata’s mom Michelle, the surgery made all the difference for her daughter.
“This,” she says, “is what Renata wanted to do.”