A group of seniors from Charlotte Catholic High School knows a smile can mean life or death.
Last week, nine senior girls from Charlotte Catholic gathered with hundreds of high school and college students from throughout the world in Beijing for the Operation Smile International Student Exchange.
Operation Smile is an international children's medical charity that provides free surgery for children in developing countries who were born with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities, including burns.
"Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft," said Jessica Kraft, public relations director for Operation Smile.
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Children born with cleft palates have gaping holes where the roof of their mouth should be, so food and drink don't easily make it to their stomachs. Severely malnourished, one child in every 10 born with a cleft palate dies before his first birthday, Kraft said.
One surgery to repair the deformity costs $240.
The weeklong conference, with the theme "Now is the Time!" is designed to help students gain a better understanding of global cultures and develop skills as future leaders in philanthropy.
The 2011 conference is the largest in the organization's history, with 750 students from 23 countries.
Operation Smile - with headquarters in Norfolk, Va. - has more than 5,000 medical volunteers from 76 countries who donate medical equipment, provide year-round treatment and train local medical professionals so they can treat their own communities.
There's a mission nearly every week. Students talk to the communities about nutrition, oral therapy and even basic hygiene.
Club President Kylie Ryan and her family have been involved with Operation Smile for 15 years; Ryan's older sister, Meg, founded the school club in 1999.
Kylie Ryan, 18, went on an Operation Smile mission to Cambodia in November, and Lindsay Cosentino, 17, went to Bolivia in October.
"It was good to see how easy it was to change their lives," said Cosentino. "It only took 45 minutes (of surgery)."
The students who hadn't yet been on a mission were inspired to do so after the conference.
"Since most of our lives are so sheltered and protected ... I want to do all I can," said Ashton Lozzi, 17, who plans to attend winter mission training this year.
Hong Kong actor, comedian and martial artist Jackie Chan, who has supported Operation Smile for 18 years, was a keynote speaker. Named one of Asia's most philanthropic individuals by Forbes Asia in 2010, Chan has donated $2 million and an anesthesia machine to help Operation Smile offer more free surgeries for children in China.
The conference also enabled students to get to know other cultures, as everyone roomed with someone from another country.
"It really gets them excited about going back (on missions) this year," said Ryan's mother and trip chaperone Dottie Ryan, 55. "A smile is a smile in any language."