Say cheese: Operation Smile helps students capture senior year

BATTLE CREEK — Two years ago, after her brother refused a professional senior portrait session, Battle High School senior Allison Bernt, 18, convinced him to participate in a photo session in the family backyard.

Armed with a “Star Wars” lightsaber, Bernt’s brother smiled and posed for the camera.

That simple photo shoot would be the catalyst for Operation Smile, a gifted education project that offers free senior portraits to Columbia high school seniors who cannot afford them.

Bernt realized that not every student at Battle could participate in time-honored senior traditions.

“It just kind of hit me that not everyone gets to have that experience, and it just kind of broke my heart,” she said.

One, two, three, smile!

According to the Operation Smile business plan, the idea took root in May 2017, although the official founding date is Aug. 22, 2017. Without a background in photography, Bernt made Operation Smile collaborative from the start.

“I actually am not a photographer at all,” she said. “I am completely into business. I just felt like it was something I had to do, so I just teamed up with some photographers.”

Three to four different photographers volunteer with Operation Smile, depending on their availability. To control for quality, Bernt said, photographers are chosen from students enrolled in either yearbook or photography II classes at Battle.

“I can take pictures, but we want high-quality photos, we want professional photos,” Bernt said.

Once the original photographers were found, she began to advertise. Operation Smile’s marketing campaign included a message in student announcements, also sent to parents. Word of mouth worked as well. After the first client was photographed, the pictures were available for posters and social media to reach more students.

To apply, students fill out a form linked in the Operation Smile instagram account. Students explain why they are good candidates for the program and what it would mean to them to participate. They also pick a location for a photo session.

Bernt reviews all applications for senior portraits. As the operation expands, a board of directors will be appointed, and one of their roles will be to review applications.

About eight students have participated in the program to date, Bernt said. One was Taylor Reed, 18, who found the group on Instagram (@como_smile) and messaged the account.

“They actually got back to me really fast,” she said.

Her portrait session was with a group of other students having Operation Smile take their senior portraits. Students can also choose individual sessions, but Reed said she enjoyed the group session because she felt less self-conscious.

The photographer edits the shoot and sends copies of the portraits to students electronically. If a grant to buy a printer is approved, clients can also receive prints.

More than a school project

Bernt was given the time and resources to develop Operation Smile through the Columbia Public School gifted program, known as “triple E.”” As a transfer student from Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School, she didn’t join the program until she entered Battle in fall 2016. It quickly became her favorite class.

“It’s not like you turn in an assignment and then memorize what you turned in and take a test,” Bernt said. “We all have different projects, and we all have different passions, and we get to use those passions to make a difference in the community.”

It helps kids do what they have in their heart to do and helps make that a reality, said Anica Contreras, 18, another “triple E” student at Battle and a photographer for Operation Smile.

For Bernt, that means addressing the financial concerns prohibiting students from getting senior portraits. To understand the need, she researched statistics for free and reduced lunch in Columbia’s public high schools and compared the cost of a senior portrait session among three local photographers.

At Battle, 53 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, while 31.9 percent qualify at Hickman and 22.5 percent at Rock Bridge, according to the Operation Smile business plan. Bernt also found that investment in senior portraits from area photographers ranged from $200 to $2,500.

“I was just thinking, ‘kids can’t afford this,'” she said.

Succession and expansion

The future for Operation Smile is expanding the program beyond Battle to the other Columbia high schools and setting up the program for longevity. Bernt was supported by Beth Winton, the coordinator for Secondary Gifted Programs Columbia Public Schools, while registering the organization as a nonprofit after her teacher, Matthew Leuchtmann, reached out to Winton.

“I’m just trying to help her with her vision, creating, I hope, an enduring legacy for her,” Winton said. “Just because the semester ends doesn’t mean this idea should end.”

That help included reaching out to both her husband, who works with other nonprofits, and a friend of Winton’s who is a lawyer and could give Bernt better advice.

The legal stuff is “above my pay grade,” Winton said.

Becoming a nonprofit would allow Bernt to take her project to the University of Central Arkansas, where she wants the project to be her honors college capstone. To operate in Arkansas, Operation Smile needs special documentation to prove it is a legal nonprofit.

“It’s a lot of paperwork,” Bernt said. “It’s all this legal stuff, and I’m still trying to understand it, but I know I want to pursue it.”

Her biggest obstacle now is finding a successor to take care of logistics.

“It’s a full-time job,” Bernt said. “I’m constantly working at home to get stuff done and in class.”

But she knows that it’s worthwhile.

“Seeing the smiles on their faces, it just makes it all real and being able to know that this program is making a difference,” she said.

“Even if it’s not changing the world, it’s changing the lives of those kids that we’re helping.”