Oak Hill kicker uses talents to raise money, awareness for worthy cause

Grayson Easterling and his younger brother, Jack. Jack Easterling was born with a cleft palate. During his 14 years, he has endured 14 corrective surgeries.
Staff Writer

Most high school seniors have a lot on their minds, with prom, graduation, choosing a college and a career path.

But 17-year-old Grayson Easterling, was thinking of his younger brother, Jack. Jack Easterling was born with a cleft palate. During his 14 years, he has endured 14 corrective surgeries.

Grayson wanted to do something in his honor.

"I started 'Kicking for Cleft' for Jack," Grayson said. "Jack is so strong. I wanted to raise money for the American Cleft-Palate Craniofacial Association, because so many people had helped him."

During the previous football season, people made pledges. For every extra point Grayson kicked for Oak Hill Academy, ACPA received $1, for every field goal $3, touchbacks $2 and for 50 yard punts, $5.

Needless to say, he made plenty.

His goal was not only to raise money, but to raise awareness, as well.

He raised more than $3,000 for ACPA.

"Kicking, of course, was a highlight of this football season," Grayson said. "But so was helping other people while I was doing it."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that each year in the United States, about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate. Isolated orofacial clefts, or clefts that occur with no other major birth defects, are one of the most common types of birth defects in the United States. Depending on the cleft type, the rate of isolated orofacial clefts can vary from 50 percent to 80 percent of all clefts.

"I had heard it happens in about 1 in 700 births, so it's not uncommon," Michelle Easterling said. "I was aware that Jack had this before he was born. So we were prepared. We focused on the cleft palate, not aware that he also had a heart defect."
The Easterlings had been referred to a team of specialists in Atlanta. They recommended seeing a geneticist first. They met with Dr. James Brock at University of Mississippi Medical Center and he found the heart defect, as well.

"We had the pediatric heart surgery before any of the cleft palate surgery," Easterling said. "We've had multiple revisions of his lips and nose. Jack had extensive jaw surgery this past summer."

Grayson has watched Jack throughout every surgery. He has been there to encourage him and support him.

"Grayson read about someone using their sports talent to help raise money," Easterling said. "That's where he got the idea for 'Kicking for Cleft."

Grayson made the announcement at a pep rally at OHA that he would be "Kicking for Cleft."

"People were so wonderful to help and pledge money," Easterling said. "I am so proud of them both."

Easterling is not sure which of her sons helps the other more. They both seem to inspire each other.

"The whole family took the situation head-on," Easterling said. "Jack is fine with all of this. He doesn't like the surgeries but he understands that they help them. He has never felt sorry for himself. He does well at school and plays sports. He doesn't let it stop him from doing anything."

Easterling said she is aware of three other people in West Point who were born with a cleft palate in varying degrees.

"It's something very few people know about unless they know of a child who was born with it," Easterling said. "We are just grateful it can be corrected with surgery."