Emily Keefner, of Canaan, NY, was born with a cleft lip and palate.

At just 18 years old, she has undergone more than 30 surgeries. Emily has been fundraising for the last two years for UMass Medical Centers Cranial Facial Unit so the hospital can upgrade its database system and offer better care to patients. Emily was honored in October by the National Plastic Surgeons Association for her commitment helping others.

She is also a member of the Canaan Volunteer Fire Department.

As part of the “Hometown Heroes” series, we’ve partnered with County Waste and Latham Ford to celebrate local unsung heroes for their good deeds and honorable work.

We asked Emily a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: What inspires you to raise money for the hospital?

A: I want to help others who are/were born with this birth defect. I have a 3-year-old cousin who was also born with both a cleft lip and palate. The advances made since I was born will ensure that he doesn’t have to face as many surgeries. The average person doesn’t realize that someone born with this defect requires multiple specialists in several fields, including dentistry, ENT, and plastic surgery to name a few.

The care I have received over the years is second to none. The staff at UMass not only cares for me and my health, but they also treat the family. They go above and beyond.  And this is my way of thanking them and giving back.

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about what you do?

The most rewarding part is seeing younger patients, like my cousin Steven, receive better care. And knowing that they will not have to face as many hurdles and obstacles as I have.

Q: What are some challenges?

There are many challenges. Society doesn’t understand the complexity of this defect.  They assume it is just cosmetic. And for some it is. But for many others, like myself, it has far-reaching health issues.

Growing up I was determined to follow in my grandfather's footsteps and enlist in the Air Force, but due to the fact that I will always have a hole in my palate that exposes my sinus cavities, I will never qualify for enlistment. Right now I am a freshmen at HVCC majoring in economics and political science in hopes of working in politics to lobby for changes in healthcare that would mandate coverage for people born with clefts. As of today, there is no law in NY state that requires coverage-families spend thousands of dollars a year out of pocket to care for their loved ones.

Q: Do you consider yourself a "hero?" Why or why not.

Do I consider myself a "hero?" NO. I am just doing what is right. Standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I am one of the lucky ones: I have an amazing support system made up of my mom, family and friends who have always fought for me and my care. Who have given up so much to make sure I have had everything I need. My mom has shown me that I can do anything as long as I keep my goal in sight and keep fighting.