Virginia Beach teen to speak at Operation Smile conference in Rome

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – 16-year-old Mara Dempsey has every reason to smile.

Mara Dempsey with cleft lip as a baby.

Born with a cleft lip, or a tear in the lip that makes it difficult for people to eat and speak properly, the rising junior at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach loves to share her story to help educate people about the condition.

Although Dempsey was able to have her cleft repaired at an early age, she recognizes that she has been fortunate.

“Many people around the world don’t have that luxury,” she says. “It’s a problem and we need to change it.”

Now that she’s shared her story stateside, she’ll get the opportunity to share it with the rest of the world during Operation Smile’s 26th annual International Student Leadership Conference in Rome, Italy.

“I feel brave when I tell my story. It’s a sensitive topic for me and I feel vulnerable when I’m in front of people talking about it,” Dempsey says. “I hope my story empowers those who hear it.”

More than 525 students from around the world will participate in the conference. Virginia has the largest number of students attending with 130.

During the week-long event from July 17 to 24, students will learn about global health while participating in service projects to benefit Operation Smile patients and serving as advocates for global access to safe surgery.

Formed in Virginia Beach in 1982, Operation Smile is an international medical charity that provides free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial deformities.

Click here for more information about the organization.