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Passing on the smiles

UB's Operation Smile club raises money, awareness for children with cleft deformities

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The Spectrum

Mindy Weinman's life changed when she met David.

The South American boy had just immigrated to Weinman's school in the United States and could barely speak English. He was born with a cleft deformity, and reconstructive surgery had left a prominent scar about his lips.

"David was an automatic target for bullying in an immature elementary class setting," said Weinman, a junior biomedical sciences major.

But instead of joining the crowd and ostracizing the young boy, Weinman befriended him.

"I volunteered to be his buddy and show him around school and it really impacted me because in that moment, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," she said.

Now the prospective dental student is serving as president of UB Operation Smile, a temporary Student Association club. Weinman is replacing UB founder Annie Lei, who led the organization on campus for the past two years. Weinman plans to continue her mission of raising awareness and funds for children with cleft lip and palate deformities.

Operation Smile functions internationally with a vast number of doctors and volunteers to help children with cleft-related disfigurements in less fortunate areas. Currently, the organization works in over 60 countries, with the goal to "heal children's smiles and bring hope for a better future," according to its official website.

Cleft surgeries are relatively inexpensive but many families cannot afford them for their children. That's where Operation Smile comes in. Through fundraising and volunteering, patients have a fighting chance to live a productive and hope-filled life.

Children born with clefts who survive often are unable to eat, speak, socialize or smile, according to the website. In some places, they are shunned and rejected.

Operation Smile works to prevent this.

The organization has become the largest volunteer-based medical charity providing free cleft surgeries, and UB's faction is one of many affiliated fundraising locations.

Lei was a great leader, bringing her own personal and academic knowledge on the cause to Operation Smile's branch at UB, according to Weinman.

Lei was a victim of cleft deformity until she underwent surgery at the age of 8. Now viewed as a strong, independent adult woman in the eyes of her peers, it is difficult to have guessed that she once experienced a cleft disability, subjecting her to teasing.

"Working with [Lei] was fantastic because her personal passion for the organization mixed well with my organizing and leadership skills," Weinman said. "She knew firsthand how these children feel and what it is like to be like them."

With this emotional connection, Lei was assertive in her role as the leader and informant. Her passion made club members want to expand the club and its influence at UB.

Lei made Operation Smile come alive at UB in a "real way," according to Weinman.

"Each year, 2,651 babies in the United States are born with a cleft palate and 4,437 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate," according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in estimations.

"Most people think of the children that we help as just some faceless and nameless kids in a third-world country," Weinman said. "But [that's] not true at all."

Cleft defects are prevalent around the globe, as well as in America. Through Operation Smile at UB, students can get informed of the severity of this deformity and treatment options.

"UB's club goal is not to perform surgeries or travel to give aid," said Amanda Schoene, a senior biology and pre-dental major and the club's vice president.

That is what the national organization seeks to accomplish.

"Our on-campus mission is to spread awareness, raise money for as many surgeries as we can and offer emotional support to patients in recovery," Schoene said.

It is a relatively low-cost surgical procedure, but many families around the world can barely afford food, let alone corrective surgery. It is individuals like members of UB Operation Smile who are standing up for this cause.

"One surgery only costs $250," Weinman said. "So if each person donates just $1, we could change so many lives."

The club on campus spends a lot of time participating in community service events and trying to get its name out in the UB community. Members take on many fundraising opportunities to donate as much as they can to the international medical charity.

In addition to financial support for patients, they also give emotional support by sending cards and "get well" bags to those in recovery.

"Last year around Christmas time, the club got together and made holiday cards for children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute," said senior biomedical sciences major and club treasurer Timothy Hansen.

Weinman has big goals and ideas in mind for Operation Smile. She has been in constant contact with SA, as they have worked together to make the club "all that it deserves to be," she said. They also have many fundraising opportunities lined up for this semester.

"My biggest goal as president this year is to drastically increase the number of members and the awareness of our club and the organizations," Weinman said. "I also am working hard to make Operation Smile a permanent club and to fundraise as much as humanly possible."

Though Weinman lacks the personal connection founder Lei had, her commitment resounds. Driven by her passion stemming from a childhood interaction, Weinman is confident that she will help UB's Operation Smile grow and excel.

Email: features@ubspectrum.com



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