Nandini Arakoni, an Indian American teenager in Naperville, Illinois, was born with a cleft lip.

Arakoni, who was born in the U.S., had three surgeries: the first when she was just two months old, the second at six months, and her final surgery when she was five. “That one I remember,” Arakoni told India-West with a laugh, adding that the surgery caused her considerable pain afterwards. “I was at home for a week eating popsicles,” she said, noting that she now just has a small scar, instead of the disfiguring affliction.

“I have always thought about how lucky I am, to be born here and to get treatment to live this blessed life,” she said.

Children born with a cleft lip or palate may face difficulty in eating, speaking and breathing, and also face the stigma of a prominent deformity.

Earlier this year, Arakoni paired up with her friend, Sanjana Gangadharan, to think about ways to give back to the community. The duo came up with the idea of selling charm bracelets to raise money for Smile Train, an organization that provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgery to children around the world. They founded the organization ‘Side by Side Smiles’ – sidebysidesmiles.org – to sell their jewelry at $5 per bracelet.

Each bracelet takes about seven minutes to make, and features a heart to symbolize love; a key symbolizing that anyone can open happiness for another person; and a feather, to represent how light and easy it is to make a difference.

Gangadharan and Arakoni – both 15-year-olds entering their sophomore year of high school – have thus far raised $4,200, which will be used to perform 16 cleft palate surgeries. The enterprising philanthropists are hoping to raise enough money to support 400 surgeries, at a cost of approximately $100,000.

India is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Smile Train services. Austin Ruckstuhl, manager of community fundraising at Smile Train, told India-West. Since 1999, Smile Train’s partner surgeons in India have carried out over 500,000 surgeries, he said.

In India, Smile Train works with 160 partner hospitals in over 110 towns and cities, including remote locations. The organization provides approximately 45,000 free cleft surgeries every year.

“We are so proud of Sanjana and Nandini raising $4,200 to support 16 surgeries,” said Ruckstuhl. “Sanjana and Nandini are true heroes to children all over the world born with clefts. They have not only raised funds for those children but they work hard to raise awareness in their community.”

“Smile Train is incredibly grateful to these wonderful girls and hopes that their work will continue to inspire others,” said Ruckstuhl.

The malformation of a lip or palate is easily treatable with a 45-minute surgery, Gangadharan told India-West, noting that Smile Train maximizes the donations it receives by training doctors in-country to perform the surgeries, rather than bringing in surgeons from the U.S.

In July, Gangadharan visited the clinic of orthodontist Himanshu Dave in Ghatkopar East, Mumbai, and saw first-hand young children who were waiting to receive a cleft surgery, and patients who had undergone the procedure.

“It’s remarkable to see how one surgery completely transforms a child’s life,” she said.

Arakoni, who hopes to be a lawyer in the future, said, “It’s really impressive to see how little it takes to make a change in the world. Every $5 we receive is two percent of a surgery.”

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