ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Imagine handing over your baby to a stranger to travel to a foreign country. To have surgery with a doctor you've never met. To live with a family you don't know.
It sounds unimaginable, but that's the decision the parents of five special children were forced to make in hopes of giving them a normal life. This is their incredible journey.
To say nine-month-old Salamata is a long ways from home would be an understatement.
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Today is the day that will change the entire course of her future, but she's more focused on the fact that she hasn't been allowed to eat since midnight.
Comforting her is Nick and Betsy Weiss, Salamata's host family.
"Look at that big girl. Wow, look at you," said Betsy Weiss.
The Weiss family has four boys, ages 5 to 12. Betsy Weiss admits, she loves having a little girl at home.
"In her little room, it is all pink and frills. It has been very fun," said Weiss. "I had a heart's dream to have a little girl in the house."
But their devotion to Salamata is much deeper.
"It was just clear beyond 100 percent that we were supposed to be her host family and that God had sent us specifically for this baby," said Betsy Weiss.
Salamata and the four other children have traveled from rural villages in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa.
The children are all suffering from birth defects known as a cleft palate or cleft lip. In the United States, these conditions are routinely repaired in the first year of life. But these children were born in a place where the surgery is not available and the defect can be life-threatening, and not just medically.
"We're going to take such good care of you," reassured a nurse, as she carried Salamata into the operating room
The children are at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, about to undergo life-changing, perhaps lifesaving surgery.
"There is a lack of medical care across the world in Third World countries," said Beaumont plastic surgeon Dr. Kongkrit Chaiyasate.
Where others see a birth defect, Chaiyasate sees hope.
"I can see the beauty inside of them. I know that I can help them to look normal and function normal again," said Chaiyasate.
All of the medical care for the "Beaumont 5," as they've been dubbed, is being provided free of charge by the surgeons and Beaumont Hospital.
In addition to Salamata, there are 10 month-olds Aime and Abdoul.
Aime is feisty and curious.
Abdoul is more reserved around strangers. He was born to a 13 year-old mother and has the most complex medical problems.
"We've only had him four months now, and he's already got a big chunk of my heart," said Jamie Newkirk, Abdoul's host mom.
Zoey, age five, is the oldest of the children.
"It really pulled on my heart strings, knowing what she had gone through for the first five years of her life, the difficulties she must have had," said Zoey's host dad Steve Boluyt.
Finally, there's Adama, the youngest. He was just five weeks old when he arrived in the United States.
"A little anxious, but we're excited to see the transformation," said host mom April DenBesten as she rocked Adama back and forth.
April and Steve DenBesten have three children of their own and another on the way. But there was enough room in their home, and their hearts, for Adama.
"We really have a heart for children," said April DenBesten.
The "Beaumont 5" were brought to the United States for help by an Indiana-based organization called Ray of Hope Medical Missions.
Rebecca Ghent is the founder.
"If there is a child, and I can find a hospital or a doctor that is willing to help them, then we will bring them," said Ghent.
Ray of Hope operates entirely on private donations. They have no paid staff. It is all volunteers.
Ghent says all of these children are survivors.
"These moms have no way of feeding their child. Zero. They can't nurse. There is no way of expressing milk, there is no bottles available to them," said Ghent. "There's no formula available. There's not even a cow to milk. We've had kids starve to death before we could get them here."
Tragically, that's not the only threat.
"In that country, it's a curse," explained Ghent. "Some tribal leaders insist that they are executed or sacrificed. If a family is successful at hiding them, they are hidden."
It's a fact that hits the host families hard. They've already come to love these kids.
"Some children get killed because they are born this way," said April DenBesten. "He wouldn't be able to go to school with his cleft lip. As he grows up, he would not be able to work with his cleft lip. It's a real cultural stigma. Knowing that we are literally changing his life, that makes it worth it."
That's why the children's families have taken this risk.
That's why, as each child goes into surgery, their host families pray, not just for the kids, but for their parents a world away.
"These children all have loving families back home," said Sarah Boluyt, Zoey's host mom.
As Dr. Chaiyasate comes out of surgery to update each family, there are tears and smiles of relief.
"We put the muscle together. We closed the gap. We repaired his nose. It's beautiful," said Chaiyasate of Adama.
"Are you hungry? Oh, hi. Hi baby, there you go," reassured April DenBesten as she was reunited with Adama.
One by one, the host families embrace Dr. Chaiyasate.
"Can't thank you enough," said Steve Boluyt.
"You're welcome. You're welcome," replied Chaiyasate.
"Just amazed at how wonderful it looks," said Sarah Boluyt, comforting Zoey as she woke up.
"I wish her parents could be here," said Steve Boluyt.
But since they can't, these families will -- as the children all move one step closer to healing and hope.
Monday at 6 p.m. -- it's the big reveal. See how different the children look just two weeks after surgery. Plus, what is like to care for these children for months and then send them back? The families share that side of the journey.
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