Skip to main content
Operation Smile Logo

Supporter Story United States

These High School Artists Create a Lasting Promise in Their Community

Pete Hanson, Operation Smile Student Programs senior associate, left, joins Kellam High School art teacher Laura Peters, third from left, and two of the three Kellam High School artists who painted the Operation Smile Dolphin's Promise dolphin, seniors Mya Shekitka and Gabby Garza, second and fourth from left, at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Not pictured: Hanna Chou. Photo: John Streit.

Students, staff and visitors who pass the statue in front of Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, will know it not only represents their school and their city, but holds a promise to support children with cleft conditions around the world.  

Originally founded by Cindy Graf in 2006, A Dolphin’s Promise was an effort to raise support for cancer research through the distribution of fiberglass dolphin statues to Virginia Beach businesses and residents.

Whether you're a local to Virginia Beach or just passing through, it's likely you've seen these dolphins found all across the city, showcasing the creativity of the local community through beautiful colors and inspirational messages. 

In 2020, Cindy invited Operation Smile to adopt this project in support of its mission of providing children born with cleft conditions the free reconstructive surgery and care they deserve in the areas of the world where it’s needed most.  
 
Earlier this year, a Promise Dolphin statue swam its way to Kellam.

Originally founded by Cindy Graf in 2006, A Dolphin’s Promise was an effort to raise support for cancer research. In 2020, Cindy invited Operation Smile to adopt this project in support its mission of providing children born with cleft conditions the free surgery and care. Pictured is Kellam High School's Promise Dolphin statue. Photo: John Streit.

Art students Hanna Chou, now at Virginia Commonwealth University, Gabriella Garza and Mya Shekitka were chosen to paint the Promise Dolphin. According to Kellam's art teacher, Laura Peters, she couldn't think of anyone better to take this project on. 

“I chose these three girls because they have such dedication, and love and passion for art,” Laura said. “They created several different sketches, and then we dove in and started painting. We were just told that it needed to represent Kellam, and I feel like we achieved that in so many different ways.”  
 
In addition to painting Kellam's mascot, a Knight, Hanna, Gabriella and Mya painted fighter jets to represent Virginia Beach’s large military community, surfers in the Atlantic Ocean and a blue crab. The artists then utilized the other side of the dolphin to feature strawberry fields and corn fields, highlighting Virginia Beach’s famous strawberries and sweet corn, and a castle, which represents their school as home of “The Knights.”   
 
“We wanted it to reflect a lot of the student population,” Mya explained. “We really tried to be as collaborative as possible and make sure as many of our own ideas as possible were put into the dolphin.” 
 
Promise Dolphins are gifted to businesses, schools and individuals that make a donation in a specific amount to Operation Smile.

Proceeds from the donations will not only help provide life-changing surgery to children born with cleft conditions living in low- and middle-income countries, but they will also provide scholarships for students and educators to attend Operation Smile’s leadership conferences and surgical programs. 
 
“In middle school, we put together care gifts for Operation Smile's patients,” Gabriella said. “So, it’s nice to have a personal connection with it again in high school. I can come back and say that I worked on this, and this is why.” 

To learn more about A Dolphin's Promise, visit our Student Programs site.

Photo: John Streit.

MAKE A GIFT

It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to provide life-changing surgery and a bright, beautiful new smile to a waiting child.