A younger brother’s developmental disability helped inspire a Princeton woman’s commitment to healing underprivileged children suffering from cleft palates and other facial deformities.
Earlier this year, Barbara Majeski and her family were honored with the Founders Circle Award by Operation Smile for their continued support of the organization, which literally puts a smile on the faces of children around the world.
Majeski flew on a mission to the Dominican Republic in 2010 with Operation Smile founders, where she saw lives being transformed by free, simple surgeries to repair cleft palates.
“The gratitude of these families will sit with me for the rest of my life. They are given a gift that is immeasurable,” she said.
Troubled on her flight back that Operation Smile was not able to treat every child who showed up at the mission site, “I thought I had to find ways to involve more people and bring the work of Operation Smile to a broader stage,” she said.
She decided to draw in former colleagues from Cydcor, a sales-services company founded by her husband, Jim, with 400 offices in North America. Her vision was to create a collaborative effort to raise money and support medical missions for Operation Smile.
“It felt like something I was meant to do,” she said. “You can’t look away and assume someone else is doing the work. You have to help.”
For Majeski, a member of The Jewish Center in Princeton and Temple Micah in Lawrenceville and an activist for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, the need to help was developed early.
A little like the family in the “Bobbsey Twins” books, the West Windsor native has a twin brother, Ben, and twin brothers who are three years younger, Michael and Steven. Steven has the developmental disability known as Fragile X.
When Majeski was six and Steven three, he suffered a series of seizures. He was airlifted to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Majeski was afraid her little brother would never come home. Her parents explained to the children that Steven would be coming home but would not develop like other children.
“I was so scared that he might never come home that I vowed to myself that I would protect him forever,” Majeski told NJJN.
Majeski had to put herself through college, waiting tables seven days a week, and sometimes felt ready to give up, she said. But her obligation to care for Steven kept her thinking long term. She graduated from what was then Towson State University with a degree in health education.
Steven was the best man when she was married in a simple ceremony by the mayor of Avalon with eight people in attendance.
“I turned down the big traditional diamond engagement ring when we got engaged,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I asked for a wedding band and that the money for a rock and a big reception go toward beginning our family philanthropy.”
Majeski was drawn to JFCS and chaired its last gala.
She met the founders of Operation Smile when she was doing business networking in her 20s. Because cleft palate may inhibit eating, sufferers sometimes don’t survive until their first birthday. The effects of a cleft lip can be both physical and emotional. “It is seen in some cultures as bad luck, and the children are sometimes abandoned,” Majeski said. “Often kids won’t go to school because they are made fun of and ostracized.”
At the May banquet where Majeski received her award, Johnson & Johnson received the Corporate Humanitarian of the Year Award, and this gave her an idea.
“When I got on stage, I decided to throw a fund-raising challenge to J&J,” she said.
On the Day of Smiles, June 6, Cydcor sales reps went door to door, to homes and businesses; set up in front of big box stores; and in Princeton set up a table on Palmer Square. The final totals will be somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000, and J&J has agreed to match up to $200,000.
Previous fund-raising has enabled them to sponsor missions to Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, and the funds already collected will allow them to send another mission.
Majeski’s father was born in Germany in a displaced persons’ camp to two Holocaust survivors. Her family was not affiliated, but she sees Judaism as contributing to the very close and loving family she grew up in.
Majeski’s husband, James, is not Jewish, and when they had their first child, her father asked if they were going to bring up the kids as Jews. “My husband made a promise to my father that our children were going to be raised Jewish, and we’ve been at the Jewish Center since Mommy and Me for our three kids,” she said.
Because neither Majeski nor her three brothers celebrated becoming a bar or bat mitzva, they are all excited about the upcoming bar mitzva of her older son, Gabe, who is now 11.
“It has been a redirection for all of us,” she said.