It wasn’t long ago that Maria Soltero-Rivera learned an important lesson: “Different is good.”
“We’ve been working so hard doing this, and this little girl puts into a few simple words exactly what we’ve been trying to communicate to everyone,” Soltero-Rivera says. “You just learn so much from these kids.”
Soltero-Rivera, a lecturer of dentistry and oral surgery at the School of Veterinary Medicine, is speaking specifically of Maryelena, an 8-year-old girl who has already had nine surgeries at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for craniofacial differences. Maryelena is featured in a newly released video showcasing the annual Best Friends Bash, a partnership between CHOP and Penn Vet.
The Best Friends Bash joins patients from CHOP with craniofacial differences and dogs with similar conditions. Nurses, doctors, and family members are also invited to attend. It’s a celebration.
“The event is to have fun, first of all,” says Soltero-Rivera, head organizer of the program. “It is also an incredibly emotional event. It’s the favorite thing that I do with my time.”
She adds that it’s an excellent way to provide support and create awareness. Craniofacial differences usually are congenital conditions present at birth that may lead to a different cosmetic appearance, which, in some cases, can impact functionality. Those affected typically undergo numerous surgeries throughout their youth.
“The children’s true selves come out at these parties,” Soltero-Rivera says. “Then you throw into the mix a bunch of puppies that just want to be pet and play around. Dog therapy has been proven to work. There’s no question it helps heal … there are just so many advantages that can be derived from the interaction.”
This year’s Best Friends Bash took place the evening of Wednesday, July 22, at Penn Vet’s Hill Pavilion. It had a beach theme, Soltero-Rivera says. Last year, there was a superhero theme.
The Best Friends Bash brings together “a lot of families at CHOP that need the support,” Soltero-Rivera says. “As explained by Dr. Scott Bartlett [of CHOP], younger kids come that are starting on their journey of multiple surgeries. Older kids that are done and are willing to help the younger kids come, too.”
The program benefits from different schools at Penn working together, Soltero-Rivera explains. In fact, she adds that, “the University of Pennsylvania was founded with a One Health perspective in mind, and this program embodies that.”
In the upcoming years, the plan is to get even more schools within the University involved.
Since its inception in 2013, the Best Friends Bash has received a yearly grant ranging between $6,000 and $10,000 from Penn Medicine’s Edwin and Fannie Gray Hall Center of Human Appearance.
Alexander Reiter, head of the dentistry and oral surgery service at Penn Vet, says the grant is used to organize the event, as well as fund awareness projects, such as the aforementioned video, as well as a children’s book, which featured the story of Lentil, a French bulldog puppy with a cleft palate and cleft lip. (Lentil quickly became a so-called “ambassadog” with his own Facebook page.)
“Everyone knows Lentil,” Reiter says.
Reiter has high hopes for the growth of the Best Friends Bash beyond the city.
“We can’t be just satisfied keeping it in Philadelphia,” he says. “We need to inspire other groups in the United States.”
“And hopefully worldwide too,” Soltero-Rivera adds. “If we can do it, that would be amazing. But we’ll take it one step at a time.”