Feature: Changing Futures One Face at a Time

Colby Lowe, 14, along with his family and friends, will complete 300 hours of service at three nonprofit organizations, including the Garland County Habitat for Humanity.

Dr. Daron Praetzel is one of those individuals who has been fortunate enough to marry his life’s passion to his life’s work.

Photography by Ashlee Nobel and courtesy of Praetzel


An oral and maxillofacial surgeon, Praetzel is a colonel in the Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) Reserves of the U.S. Air Force. He served active duty for 13 years and was deployed to humanitarian medical missions in Honduras and Ecuador and served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom for war face trauma.

Colby Lowe, left, with Bob Edmonds, a major supporter of The FACES Foundation.

Colby Lowe, left, with Bob Edmonds, a major supporter of The FACES Foundation.

It was during his deployment to Iraq that the groundwork for The FACES Foundation was laid. While serving there, Praetzel performed facial reconstructive surgeries on a 9-month-old boy who had fallen in a pool of water that contained 200 live wires — he suffered fourth-degree burns and lost his jaw, not just the skin but the bone as well. When the infant’s father took him to the local hospital, he was told his son would die. The father, determined to find care for his young son, then took him to a nearby military hospital. There he met Praetzel, who took the child into his care.

“Though it was a military hospital, we accepted some civilian traumas, we treated war zone traumas for local nationals,” Praetzel said. He was the only oral and maxillofacial surgeon in the region and, according to his biographical sketch, Praetzel performed more than 500 procedures while in Iraq.

Over the next three months, Praetzel performed more than 20 surgeries on this tiny patient, creating a procedure for tissue growth that he would later patent. Praetzel saved the young child’s life, when others had given up hope.

“Dr. Praetzel truly has a gift to offer the world,” said Ernie Hinz, president and executive director of The FACES Foundation.

“A lot of doctors support organizations and nonprofits abroad, and while that’s wonderful, Dr. Praetzel feels we have many worthy causes right here in the United States. He started FACES several years ago, unofficially. But as he became more visible in the community and word-of-mouth began to spread, we felt it necessary to create an organization,” he said.

The FACES Foundation became an officially recognized nonprofit organization in 2014, its mission to provide “qualified individuals with needed services involving facial deformities, birth defects and reconstruction.” To “pay” for the surgeries, which can cost as much as $35,000 per procedure, patients “pay it forward,” serving 100 hours of community service at three local nonprofits for a total of 300 hours.

“The objective is that the patients give back. The underlying objective is to expose the patients to volunteerism, to introduce them to the kind of ‘feel good’ you obtain by working to benefit others. If we can get one or two people who become lifelong volunteers … this will be a wonderful byproduct of the work,” Hinz said.

Colby Lowe, 14, along with his family and friends, will complete 300 hours of service at three nonprofit organizations, including the Garland County Habitat for Humanity.

“You know, sometimes people who may have experienced hardship or ridicule due to facial deformities may feel really down about life, but when they go into environments like Abilities Unlimited, where you feel such vibrant excitement, where the individuals there have self-esteem that’s as high as anyone’s because they have the opportunity to work and make a living … it leaves an imprint on them. You walk away with a new perspective. You realize your life isn’t that bad.”

Thus far, The FACES Foundation has provided reconstructive surgery for Sydney Sexton, and Colby Lowe, 14, will soon undergo a life-changing procedure. He is the first client to participate in the “pay-it-forward” concept.

Hinz accompanied Lowe and his parents as they toured the facilities at which Lowe and his family will volunteer. Hinz noticed Lowe’s posture as they observed the work occurring around him.

“Colby often holds his head down. However, as he walked through, his posture changed. That’s what we want to instill. Hopefully, when given the opportunity to volunteer, Colby will be the first to raise his hand.”

As they walked on, Hinz spoke with Lowe about the costs associated with the procedures he will soon undergo. “It’s a significant cost — more than $35,000 — and there will be multiple surgeries,” Hinz said.

Lowe was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip, his mother Angela Lowe said. He had surgeries at both 3 and 6 months of age to correct them.

“Dr. Praetzel’s son Jacob and Colby played baseball and football together — in fact, Dr. P coached one of the teams. We’ve known him for about three years,” Angela Lowe said. “He noticed Colby one day and asked me who had done the corrective surgeries. I told him that the local hospitals didn’t want to do any additional surgeries until Colby turned 18. He’d already had a bone graft that didn’t take.”

Praetzel, however, was unfazed. “He said he had a formula — it was expensive — but it would work, he reassured me. Dr. P has been seeing Colby for the past year, but I didn’t know about The FACES Foundation until recently.”

Angela is excited about the upcoming surgery. “Colby is shy until you get to know him. This will help with his self-esteem. He’s already pretty confident. Sports have helped boost his self esteem. He’s won a lot of first-place ribbons.”

Angela proudly shared her son’s accomplishments: He runs a 4 minute, 54 second mile, and he lettered in cross country track this past year. While she doesn’t feel his cleft palate has held him back, “He doesn’t smile as much as he should. He’s a pretty happy kid. Having the surgery will certainly add to his self-esteem, and he won’t be afraid to smile.”

Lowe and his family will volunteer at three Hot Springs-based nonprofits: Abilities Unlimited, First Step and the Garland County Habitat for Humanity.

“I think the community service will be fun. It will be nice to help someone else,” Lowe said. He was impressed with the people who work at the organizations where he’ll volunteer, especially Abilities Unlimited. “You never know a person’s story until you get to know them — you never know what they’ve been through.”

He also admires the work Praetzel does. “He’s great. He’s always trying to do something to help people, and I’m really glad he said he could do my surgery before I turn 18.”

Angela and the rest of Lowe’s family, including his dad John Swecker, will work alongside Colby to help complete the 300 hours of community service. “Doing something for someone is always a good thing, especially when someone has helped you. And Abilities Unlimited and First Step are two great organizations. I admire their missions,” she said.

Oktoberfest-2Serving Others

Lowe and his family will serve at the following nonprofit organizations.

“Abilities Unlimited is more than a place of work. It’s a place where we care for one another… .”

This sentiment, spoken by Karen Kight, executive director of Abilities Unlimited of Hot Springs, Arkansas Inc., (AUI) characterizes the people and the environment at Abilities Unlimited, a nonprofit organization serving individuals with disabilities.

“Our consumers have a number of challenges, such as autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities,” Kight said.

AUI provides classes in interpersonal social skills, computer skills, cooking and nutrition and exercise, and it offers comprehensive training in a manufacturing environment.

“We challenge our consumers to reach their highest ability,” Kight said.

AUI contracts with a number of manufacturers to create screw packs, assemble packaging clamshells and other items. The consumers work at stations that have been modified to their abilities, and some tasks are broken down into steps to ensure success. The consumers earn pay based on the number of pieces they produce.

Janet Aldridge is an instructor at AUI, and her daughter is a consumer there. “My daughter Tracy was 43 when she had a heart attack and a stroke. As a result, she lost her language skills.” She also has limited use of her arms and can only walk short distances. “While she was in rehabilitation, doctors suggested I put her in a nursing home. But she was determined to get better. She went from a wheelchair to a cane to walking on her own. Now she attends classes and works here, and this has given her a reason to get up in the morning. It’s given her life meaning,” Aldridge said.

Other clients are younger, like Colton Gross, who recently graduated from high school. AUI works with eight school districts to help qualified individuals with developmental disabilities transition into a work environment.

Gross uses his earnings to buy cattle. His family owns a farm, and last year they received the Garland County Farm Family of the Year award, in addition to being named the Arkansas Farm Bureau’s 2014 West Central District Farm Family of the Year. Thus far, Gross has 11 heads of cattle. Another consumer, Ray, who has worked at AUI for 18 months, recently moved into his own apartment.

Last year, AUI served 166 consumers. A portion of the work they do is funded through the Abilities Unlimited Thrift Store at 1819 Albert Pike Road — consumers work there as well — and donations of furniture, clothing or even cars and boats are accepted.

For more information about AUI, log on to abilitiesunlimitedhotsprings.com or call (501) 767-8400.

Nancy Baxter serves as the director of development for the First Step Foundation, the fundraising arm of the First Step (FS) organization. First Step serves individuals, from birth to adulthood, with developmental delays and disabilities.

“A FS consumer may be a child who has experienced a delay in a milestone, such as not sitting up, walking or being potty trained at the appropriate age. If caught early enough, we can help them overcome this challenge. Our goal is that all of our children go to kindergarten,” Baxter said. “Some of the children have chronic conditions, such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism. Most are referred to us by their physicians, and we develop a plan for each child based on his individual needs.”

While a number of FS school-age consumers cannot attend classes in a traditional setting, they are enrolled in their local districts so they graduate from their schools and from First Step.

FS was founded in Hot Springs in 1958 by a group of parents, physicians and concerned citizens in a rented classroom with one teacher and seven children. The grassroots effort started because parents who had special needs children were frustrated with the lack of services in Hot Springs and with having to drive to Little Rock to receive those services. Today, they provide speech and physical therapy, in addition to other services, to about 2,000 adult and children consumers in six facilities. The organization also offers preschool and school-age programs; alternate community services; an adult day program, during which consumers learn independent living skills; and supported employment.

“If a consumer is ready and capable of working, we find him a job, train and coach him through the job until he’s ready to work independently. And we check on them periodically,” Baxter said.

The jobs may be janitorial, or working in kitchens or retail outlets. “We work to fit the employee with the job,” she said.

Once a year, Baxter said, they host a banquet during which the employers and consumers come together to celebrate their achievements. “The employers report that our employees have good attendance records, and they are happy to be there.” And the consumers gain a sense of accomplishment. “It’s a win-win situation.”

For more information about First Step, log on to firststeparkansas.com or call (501) 624-6468.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Garland County Habitat for Humanity (GCHFH).

Habitat for Humanity (HFH) is an international organization founded on the principles of home ownership and partnership. Specifically, HFH is a nonprofit, Christian housing ministry that builds, renovates and repairs homes utilizing donations and volunteer labor to increase access to decent, affordable housing around the world.

The GCHFH has built 117 homes since its inception and, with cooperation from Mother Nature, officials hope to complete construction by year-end on the three homes that are in progress.

John Goodman serves as interim executive director for the nonprofit. It’s an organization that he holds dear — this is his second stint in GCHFH’s leadership. Goodman retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2001, where he’d served as a chaplain, and, for 13 years afterward, was the executive director of GCHFH.

Goodman said the majority of the homes GCHFH has built are new. “The majority of them are three-bedroom homes of approximately 1,100 square feet, about a half dozen or so have been four bedrooms. We build based on the needs of the family, and several of them are handicap accessible.”

The organization accepts applications once per year. “They are actually applying for a loan, and, once approved, they are required to help build their homes. Once the houses are completed, the applicants become homeowners,” Goodman said. “Habitat finances the home for 20 years at zero percent interest. And those funds are used to build more homes. The homes are not given away; that’s a misconception.”

Another is that Habitat homes are only for a certain race or class of people. “Our successful applicants are hardworking families [of various races and ages], people who just need a hand up in life. They simply want the opportunity to own their own homes and to build something better for their families and their children.”

The GCHFH builds an average of eight homes each year and receives no government funding. The organization owes much of its success to the hard work and dedication of 480 volunteers, who donated more than 28,000 hours this past fiscal year, as well as a number of national and community sponsors including CHI St. Vincent, which was named the GCHFH 2014 “Donor of the Year.” Goodman said that for years the medical center has sponsored a home each year, a gift that is valued at about $50,000 per home.

A number of youth groups from area colleges, namely Henderson State University, Hendrix College and the University of Central Arkansas, have volunteered in building GCHFH homes.

“Colby will certainly be welcome and embraced by ‘the old timers,’” Goodman said, jokingly referring to the older volunteers, many retirees from Hot Springs and Hot Springs Village.

For more information about GCHFH as well as information about volunteering, call (501) 623-5600 or log on to garlandcountyhabitat.com.

A Newfound Confidence

Sydney Sexton, 18, is off to her freshman year of college, with a sense of enthusiasm that’s evident in her smile. But this happy visage wasn’t always her standard facial expression.

“I had a pronounced underbite. I hated to smile,” Sexton said. “It started to affect my self-esteem in middle school. You know, that’s when you start puberty and become more aware of your body and your image.”


Sydney Sexton before her surgeries. Many didn’t recognize her afterward.

She’s had braces twice, and while the orthodontia treatments have helped straighten her teeth, they did not correct her underbite, which caused her to eat slowly.

“I was very self-conscious in school at lunch. Other kids would mimic my smile and pretend to have an underbite,” Sexton said. She dealt with the teasing two ways. “I’d tell them that [the mockery] hurt my feelings, or I’d ignore them and blow it off.”

During her sophomore year of high school, Sexton got her second set of braces. “My teeth needed to be aligned again. This time, though, my ‘Nana’ wanted to address my underbite. When she spoke with the doctor, he said he couldn’t help but did know someone who could.”

Enter Dr. Praetzel.


Sydney Sexton (left) and Dr. Daron Praetzel; since her corrective surgeries, she’s become more confident and smiles more often.

“I was nervous and excited to meet Dr. Praetzel,” Sexton said of her and her grandmother Sue Sexton’s meeting with the surgeon. “He went over the things that would occur during surgery and used a model to explain the procedure. I was frightened to hear he’d have to break my jaw, but I was still excited.”

Praetzel then explained the surgery could cost as much as $100,000, if performed in a local hospital. However, if Sexton were willing to delay her surgery, he’d have a solution. The solution was to perform her surgeries at the Arkansas Center for Surgical Excellence, which was under construction at the time. Doing so would cut the costs in half.

During the wait, Sexton said, she thought about the surgery every day. “I was terrified when the day finally came. I wanted to back out at the last minute, but I’m so glad I did it.”

She had surgery on July 7, 2014, and began her senior year with a newfound confidence. “A lot of people didn’t even know who I was. So many people took a second look. My own cousin didn’t know who I was,” she said.

Sexton also said many of her family members and friends noted how much her self-esteem had improved. “I was always happy, but now others can tell. I’m more outgoing.”
“I’ve seen this a lot. The personality changes that someone who has had a facial deformity experiences after having surgery are amazing,” Praetzel said. “When I first met Sydney, she’d barely look at me. She was shy and really didn’t talk; she kind of mumbled. She hid in her shadow. But the transformation was tremendous.”

Sexton also began dating. “It was nice to feel that someone felt I was pretty,” she said, offering these wise words for others: “Never judge a book by its cover.” And to Lowe she encouragingly expressed: “Don’t be scared. Don’t hesitate [to have the surgery]. You will love your new look. I’m so grateful to Dr. Praetzel.”

While changing lives is certainly rewarding, Praetzel truly believes in the power of giving back. “Having the surgery center cuts down on costs, and I can waive my fee, but there are additional expenses that must be paid. Insurance, Medicaid and Medicare typically don’t cover the types of surgeries we perform. [The pay-it-forward concept] allows our patients to earn it versus getting a handout,” he said. “Furthermore, volunteering changes them. Colby will work at First Step and Abilities Unlimited and see people performing tasks that are difficult for them. It changes your perspective.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he continued. “The organizations get volunteers, the volunteers help the community while building teamwork, and the patients get to ‘pay for’ their surgeries. It’s not about me. I purposely stay in the background. If we can change lives through surgery and volunteerism, everyone will be in a better place.”

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1 Comment

  1. by Margie Sexton on August 28, 2015  8:57 pm

    The article regarding Sydney Sexton told/showed her true self! She is a very happy young lady and I commend her for having the courage to have this procedure done. Dr. Praetzel is an amazing surgeon and I am very thankful, he helped Sydney with her confidence and showing her life outside her own shadow!!!! Thank you for a wonderful article!!!!!! Sydney's mom, Margie

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