From the Archive: Unable to speak at age six with a cleft palate, United Way staff member Nakisha Coffey is now a voice for our common good


Nakisha Coffey

Nakisha Coffey shocked many of her coworkers at United Way of the Mid-South earlier this year when she shared that as a child, United Way had helped her in overcoming a cleft palate condition.

Cleft palate is a condition that impacts roughly 1 in 2,000* babies today – a split or separation in the roof of the mouth that can interfere with eating, speaking, and even breathing.

“It’s essentially a hole in the top of your mouth that prevents you from talking,” she said. “Back then, you could not have surgery to correct it until you were 5 years old. My parents realized that it was going to be a lot more expensive than they had anticipated… it prolonged the surgery.”

Coffey explained that when she tried to talk, it was difficult.

“I could not talk,” she says. “When I would speak, I could not be understood.”

Coffey’s parents wisely paired her with a local church member for sign language lessons, to increase her communication skills while arranging for resources for surgery.

“My parents decided that until they could come up with a solution, they would get a way for me to sign. One of the things I was taught was to ask people was, ‘are you my friend?’”

Nakisha at 6 years old

Nakisha at 6 years old

Coffey said she was a passionate child who would pursue friendships only to find out that some children would tell her “no.” Some treated her as if she “was not human” because of her condition. During her early years, she understood enough to know that there were children who did not accept her.

“I was six and a half and was crushed,” she said, recalling the pain caused by children who were mean to her. “One of the things I tell my children today is, ‘don’t believe anything they say, kids can be mean’.”

Her mother and father did come up with a plan to afford the surgery, and she went to Houston, TX for the procedure. While recovering, Coffey’s arms were placed in a cast so she would not touch her mouth while it healed.

After the surgery, and with finances now tighter than ever, the family struggled to find a quality speech therapist to help Coffey gain ground with her speaking skills.

“Then one day, while my mother was at work she talked to a co-worker who advised her to contact United Way.”

A United Way staff member helped Coffey’s mother locate resources and a speech therapy program to help provide two years of speech therapy.

Coffey did not even know of her childhood connection with United Way when she was hired to work for the organization.

“When I told my mother I would be working at United Way, she was thrilled. She shared the details of how I got connected with my childhood speech therapy. That’s when I first learned that United Way had been there for me as a child, and had helped me overcome my condition.”

“United Way gave me a voice,” Coffey says.

This year, working as a part of the Loaned Executive team, Coffey is using that voice to help spread awareness of United Way’s work in businesses and organizations across the area. Her speaking about United Way helps raise resources for the same organization which helped her as a child, ensuring that agencies, programs and initiatives will be there to help people in need for generations to come.

* From the American Academy of Otolaryngology
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