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In Lexington, student fund-raising brings smiles

Julia Lehmann holding a young patient last spring in Panama. Julia Lehmann holding a young patient last spring in Panama. (Marc Ascher/Operation Smile)
By Sarah Corrigan
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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‘I can’t imagine my life not being involved with this organization,’’ said 17-year-old Julia Lehmann, founder and president of the Operation Smile Club at Lexington High School. “It’s what gives me a sense of purpose and a way to give back simply because I can.’’

Since it began two years ago, Lehmann’s club has raised nearly $20,000 to fund 83 facial-deformity surgeries in developing countries, and counts up to 25 members at each of its weekly meetings.

Approximately 200,000 children worldwide are born with a cleft lip or cleft palate facial deformity each year. Surgery, which typically costs about $240, repairs these deformities in most cases.

Lehmann, who aspires to become a nurse, took her commitment one step further last April by traveling to Chiriqui, Panama, to participate in an Operation Smile medical mission as a student volunteer, helping to comfort, entertain, and educate children awaiting surgery. Today, she serves on the Operation Smile Executive Leadership Council and trains other students to participate in similar trips next month.

“The experience I had in Panama definitely made me more driven to raise money and awareness at school and inspire members,’’ said Lehmann, who credits fellow students Alana Benson, Sofia Halperin-Goldstein, and Michelle Johnson with helping the Operation Smile Club succeed. “That’s our main goal — not only to raise money, but also to get people involved.’’

To start, club members put up posters around school, sold candy, held bake sales, and raised awareness though lollipop drives and smiley-face pin campaigns. In October, they raised $7,000 at their second benefit dinner, complete with a silent auction and a presentation given by Lehmann about her experience in Panama.

Club adviser Alison Bennett said besides the help given to the Operation Smile organization, students at Lexington High School also reap benefits from the club’s work.

“Julia has created a club that is entirely student-led and really open and welcoming to all students,’’ said Bennett, who frequently suggests the Operation Smile Club to new students looking to make friends and get involved in something worthwhile. “She just exudes a genuine kindness and acceptance of all people. Younger students look up to her and think, ‘I can do this.’ ’’

For Lehmann, being kind and accepting toward others starts with just a smile.

“It’s something so small that we take for granted,’’ she said. “It’s such a simple form of human interaction, and these children can’t even do that. What we want to do is help these kids have another chance at life and a future without being ashamed of how they look.’’

giving spirit

Some volunteer because of challenges they themselves have faced. Others look out on the world and see a need they can fill. But whether providing aid to rural villages in Guatemala or bringing a smile to a sick child close to home, these local teenagers are making a difference.