Christopher Yao (C’17) chooses his words wisely. When he speaks, listeners get a sense that each word is chosen with care, thought, and consideration. Christopher’s speech, though, was not always this precise. When he was in the sixth grade, he was diagnosed with severe prognathism, more commonly known as an underbite, which affected his speech. Now, as the founder of Kids Change the World, a non–profit charity that improves children’s health worldwide, Christopher helps kids who experience symptoms similar to his own.
Kids Change the World focuses primarily on helping children with cleft palates and cleft lips. Christopher’s diagnosis was what inspired him to get into nonprofit work in the first place. He was still in middle school when he founded Kids Change the World, but since then, he’s graduated from Penn, finished a Biology degree in just three years, and is now pursuing a masters degree in Public Health at Penn’s School of Medicine.
Christopher’s prognathism was quite intense. The problem extended beyond simply having to wear large, restrictive appliances at night. During the peak of his condition, Christopher found basic, everyday actions were impaired. “I was having problems enunciating words properly,” he recalls, “I couldn’t say certain sounds properly, and I was having trouble chewing—biting into an apple, for instance; simple things that we take for granted, eating pizza.”
Christopher had two courses of treatment: either a series of extensive surgeries or relying on years of corrective hardware. Christopher remembers, “I was about ten years old, and you can just imagine, going to a surgeon for consults…pediatricians… dentists, you know it can be quite scary…It would cause a social stigma in school, and at that point I really felt frustrated and frightened because I didn’t know what was going on.”
During this harrowing time, Christopher turned to the internet where he discovered a similar, related condition, called the “cleft lip.” Children born with this condition have a split in their upper lip, leaving the child with severe speech impediments. “They weren't able to speak properly, and they were ostracized,” Christopher says. He saw elements of his own condition exacerbated in theirs, and his heart went out to them. “A lot of these kids were abandoned—thought to be ‘curses from God.’ They had so much less than I had, and they were going through a far more severe condition,” he explains.
Christopher knew he had to do something. He learned that correcting a cleft lip cost about 250 dollars. The surgery would take less than an hour, making it an operation significantly less complicated and risky than his own. That summer, Christopher aimed to raise 250 dollars, enough to change one child’s life forever. To his surprise, he shattered this goal, raising 1,000 dollars—four times what he had pledged to raise.
From there, Christopher eventually founded Kids Change the World. This year, Kids Change the World celebrates its tenth year, and it has grown in ways Christopher never thought possible when the idea first stumbled into his head in middle school. It’s partnered with Smile Train—the most high profile cleft–lip and cleft–palate non–profit in the U.S., as well as with Reach Out and Read, a program that is geared towards encouraging early literacy in low-income children during their visits to the pediatrician. Another one of Kids Change the World's programs, Education Preparation, distributes school supplies and books to students across the country who might not otherwise have access. Kids Change the World is 100% volunteer based, meaning that every dollar donated goes directly to helping the kids.
In addition to Kids Change the World, Christopher was involved in The Pan-Asian American Community House at Penn and served as a U.S. Department of State citizen diplomat in 2013 and 2015 to the People's Republic of China.
But, Kids Change the World is his true passion. Over its decade long existence, the program has won a number of awards. Some of these include the U.S. President’s Call to Service Award for Lifetime Achievement in Volunteer Service, Nickelodeon’s Halo Effect Award, and the Long Island Volunteer Hall of Fame Award for Visionary Philanthropy
Personally, Christopher was named one of the "25 Most Powerful and Influential Young People in the World" by The Huffington Post and was one of only ten annual recipients of the U.S. President's Environmental Youth Award awarded by President Barack Obama. But the slurry of White House visits and national honor rolls isn’t really what Christopher finds the most rewarding about this line of work; it’s interacting with the children, children who come in frightened, having never been to a hospital before.
“They come from the mountainside. They walk and they take buses for a week,” Christopher says, “and then they trust our partner cleft teams with everything even when they've never seen a doctor in their entire lives.” After the operation, the children gain a whole new outlook. “It’s amazing,” he says. “They can finally go back to school. They know they won’t be ostracized from their family...that they’ll someday get married and hold a job,” he pauses, and then continues, “I think that’s the greatest gift I’ve gotten.”
Read about the rest of the students profiled for 34th Street Magazine's Penn 10 project here.