A Columbus student’s senior project is dedicated to helping a friend, an 8-year-old Columbus girl who has endured numerous surgeries to correct a cleft lip/palate.

“Claire’s Journey: A Fundraiser for Claire Kidd” will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Whitecreek Lutheran School, featuring a free-will donation chili supper and a gift basket auction.

The gift baskets will be collections of items such as a family camping basket with a tent and outdoor gear and a baking basket filled with cookbooks and kitchenware.

Proceeds from the event will help Claire and her family with medical expenses for prior and future cleft palate surgeries, said Columbus East senior Madison Schlehuser, who is organizing the fundraiser. The Kidd family attends Whitecreek Lutheran Church along with the Schlehuser family.

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“I’ve known Claire ever since she was born,” Schlehuser said of her young friend. “I’ve watched her grow up and watched her go through all of her surgeries. She is so courageous. And she’s very open about what she has to go through. She is a very strong little girl.”

Claire’s mother, Rachel Kidd, said she found out five months into her pregnancy with Claire, and her twin CJ, that Claire was having difficulties growing and doctors had found a facial deformity.

Although specialists in Indianapolis told the family they could elect to terminate the pregnancy with Claire, as there could be more birth defects that had not yet been detected, the family emphatically said, “Absolutely not,” and proceeded.

“We will take what God has provided us and we will do our best with what might lie ahead for us,” Rachel Kidd wrote to Madison and the Schlehuser family about the experience. “We were given some information about facial deformities, especially cleft lip/palate. We took all the information and studies and prayed.”

The twins were born on July 29, 2009, with CJ weighing 4 pounds, 3 ounces, and Claire at 2 pounds, 14 ounces.

Claire did have the cleft lip/palate and was fed through a feeding tube until she could have a special bottle and nipple that allowed pumped breast milk to be squirted into her mouth.

A sequence of surgeries followed with the Riley Hospital for Children Craniofacial team, from closing the bilateral sides of her lip, bone graft surgery to close the gap in her upper gums and cleft palate surgery. She receives speech therapy and annual checkups at Riley for speech and hearing.

Her mother said additional surgeries will be needed when she is older, some of the procedures being cosmetic for her appearance.

Through it all, families at Whitecreek Lutheran have supported the family, and the Kidd family has avidly supported the church, Schlehuser said.

When Claire started school, the family anticipated that children might make fun of her due to her facial differences.

Many kids asked questions, but Claire “stood strong and told them what she was born with,” her mother said. “We keep encouraging her to tell people that this is the way God made her, and that everyone is different.”

Claire is now in second grade at Whitecreek Lutheran School with her twin brother, and enjoys exploring the outdoors and dancing. She and CJ are close, and CJ is affected when his sister has surgery, their mother said.

“He’s her protector,” she said.

“We’ve known Madison and her family and are lifelong friends,” Rachel Kidd said. “Claire really loves Madison and they have a special bond. We’re humbled that Madison would do this. We’re just very grateful for friends and family who have been there for us.”

The Kidd family will be at Sunday’s event, she said.

Claire will eventually need to have some dental work done because of the cleft gums she was born with, something that Schlehuser said particularly touches her heart.

Schlehuser, who will graduate this May from East, plans to pursue a career as a dental assistant, and hopes to help children who are going through treatment as Claire has.

“Basically, any kid who has to go through this many surgeries — I think she’s had at least eight — you have to be strong-willed,” Schlehuser said. “But she’s out there living her life. It’s a lot for a little kid to go through. And I just want to give back to Claire and kids who are going through what she’s going through.”

If you go

What: Claire’s Journey: Fundraiser for Claire Kidd

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Whitecreek Lutheran School, 16270 S County Road 300W, Columbus

To benefit: Medical expenses for Claire Kidd, who is undergoing treatment for cleft palate

Featuring: Free-will donation chili supper and auctions of gift baskets featuring Mensendiek Auction & Real Estate

For more information or to donate items, call 812-447-8729.

About cleft palate

Cleft lip and cleft palate are openings or splits in the upper lip, the roof of the mouth (palate) or both. Cleft lip and cleft palate result when facial structures that are developing in an unborn baby don’t close completely.

Cleft lip and cleft palate are among the most common birth defects. They most commonly occur as isolated birth defects but are also associated with many inherited genetic conditions or syndromes.

Cleft lip and cleft palate can be corrected. In most babies, a series of surgeries can restore normal function and achieve a more normal appearance with minimal scarring.

— Source: Mayo Clinic

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.