Kimberley Sisk looks forward to the day when she can smile without hesitation.
She can't wait until she'll no longer worry about being different or being teased by ignorant and insensitive schoolmates.
"I get mad," she said. "I'll start talking about them back."
Kimberley is a sixth-grader at Tuolumne Elementary School in south Modesto. The 12-year-old was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, conditions that affect the shape of her mouth and positioning of her teeth. She had surgeries when she was a baby, and they helped her cosmetically. But there's still structural work to be done. The upper bridge needs surgery to repair a hole between the roof of her mouth and her nose.
She also has an unrelated problem that limits the hearing in her left ear.
Her father is disabled and unemployed, as is her mother, and the family of six lives in close quarters in a trailer park. They have no phone and no car, and that made it difficult to keep her medical and dental appointments.
Consequently, Kimberley lost contact with her representative from California Children's Services, which provides medical care for children with disabilities and who come from poor families.
That began to change when she arrived at Tuolumne Elementary last year. School nurse Vickie Crowell took an interest in Kimberley, as did Principal Mark Lewis. They visited the home to meet her parents, and they reconnected her with the children's services agency.
"They had her in their caseload but no (recent) action on her," Crowell said.
For all the criticisms slung at educators, there are many like Lewis and Crowell who get involved in their students' lives and make impacts that can't be measured by standardized test scores. They step off the campus to help parents help their children.
"Some (parents) just don't have the resources or the knowledge," Lewis said. "(Kimberley's parents) are having a difficult time. But they want to do the best for their daughter."
When Kimberley enrolled in Tuolumne as a fifth-grader, school officials saw a child with tremendous potential but who was being held back by the social stigma.
"She's like any other kid her age," Lewis said. "She's concerned about her looks. She was very self-conscious."
Lewis and Crowell set out to help her build her self-esteem.
"She's bright enough where she could go to college," Lewis said. "We want to give her some hope that she can make it."
Kimberley also found a friend in Kim Spina, a Modesto City Schools board member who volunteered to serve as a mentor. They go to lunch. Spina took her shopping for shoes. When Kimberley's year-round track resumes in late October, they'll focus on improving her schoolwork.
But during her month off track, she'll to go the University of California San Francisco Medical Center to have surgery to repair the ear problem.
Then she'll get braces doctors hope will correct some of the dental problems to limit the scope of surgery needed later to rebuild the upper maxillary bone that holds her upper teeth.
"If not, they said they might have to break my jaw," she said.
That work, she said, could begin in 2009. If she fears the pain of having the work done, she doesn't let on. In fact, she said, the sooner the better.
"By the time I'm grown up, I want to have it all done," Kimberley said. "I want to have straight teeth and not a messed-up lip."
Now this young girl, who has endured so many physical and social minefields, has a goal.
"I want to be a firefighter or a detective," she said.
Crowell and Lewis believe in Kimberley. She's one of those children who, with a little nudge, loads of encouragement and some help in getting the proper medical treatment, has a fighting chance to see her dreams come true.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.