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MAKING A MARK: Students decorate dolphin statue in support of Operation Smile

Kellam High School students joined forces with Operation Smile for a project that’s both beautiful and meaningful, bringing attention to a worldwide mission.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Drive past Kellam High School and you’ll spot this dolphin statue just outside the main entrance, hand-painted by students to reflect Virginia Beach.

"We realized, 'Oh, this is our community. This is where we live. We know this place. Let's just keep adding whatever we can to represent it the best that we can," said Hannah Chou, one of three students who worked on the project.

Over three days, she and her classmate Gabby Garza added a knight--Kellam's mascot-- and crashing waves to one side, while fellow student Mya Shekitka and art teacher Laura Peters fashioned sprawling fields on the other. And there were lots of special details in-between.

"Our hands underneath the dolphin," said Garza. "It was kind of a small debate about how should we include our signatures... So, if you're really looking for it, you can see and know who did this."

It's an intricate design by some of Kellam’s top art students. But this isn’t your ordinary school project.

"The dolphins here all are a part of Operation Smile," said Shekitka. "A dolphin is, a symbol of hope and it just sparks joy."

Pete Hansen is a senior student programs associate at Operation Smile, headquartered in Virginia Beach.

RELATED: Operation Smile opens interactive learning center to teach people about cleft conditions

"We travel around the world and to developing countries and provide free surgeries for patients, most of whom are children, who have cleft lip and/or cleft palate," said Hansen.

Through the nonprofit's project 'A Dolphin’s Promise,' purchased dolphin statues are decorated and displayed to raise awareness and funds. 

"Half of the proceeds go towards surgeries for our patients," said Hansen, "and the other half we're using to fund scholarships for students and educators to participate in Operation Smile missions."

Last month, Kellam students helped unveil the high school's dolphin as a tribute to their community and a commitment to children everywhere.

"Even if I'll never get to meet them, it's super awesome to have that impact on their lives," said Shekitka.

Promise Dolphins are custom-made for each donor. Operation Smile needs more artists and volunteers to help decorate them. To sign up or to get a dolphin in your community, visit the project's website.

Author's Note: The video below is on file from Feb. 28, 2019.

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