CROSS RIVER, N.Y. – All her life, Lucy Cotto has dealt with questions about her physical appearance.

Instead of getting angry, the 17-year-old soon-to-be senior at John Jay High School said she takes the time to educate people in a respectful manner, even if she wasn’t given the same courtesy. In fact, Cotto said, that’s how she’s met some of her best friends.

“These [kids], they don’t have a clue about what I’ve been going through, and I don’t expect them to know,” Cotto said. “They’re just doing it to make themselves feel better.”

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Cotto was born with a cleft palate, which she describes as a tear in the roof of the mouth. Beginning at 12 months old, Cotto underwent six surgeries in five years.

“The condition makes it hard for a person to eat and speak properly,” she said.

In Cotto’s experience, cheerfully sharing about her condition tends to disarm bullies.

“At first, they’re shocked and nervously laugh and walk away,” she said. Eventually, she said, many apologize for their behavior and ask more questions.

Luckily, Lucy hasn’t had to overcome her condition on her own. She said the Katonah-Lewisboro community has been supportive, often contributing to Operation Smile fundraisers. The non-profit organization, based in Virginia, has provided hundreds of thousands of surgeries for those born with a cleft lip, cleft palate or other facial deformities.

“We do everything for free,” said Nicole Bell, public relations director. “Nobody pays a dime.”

Years of answering questions about her condition has prepared Cotto for Operation Smile’s 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference, held July 16 to 21 in Seattle, where she shared her story with 300 other students.

“I’m so excited for this opportunity,” Cotto said. “I’m looking forward to speaking with other students, sharing stories of overcoming obstacles and educating participants about what it’s like to live with a facial deformity, as well as offering tips on how they can be better advocates for kids born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.”

Cotto’s speech therapy sessions were all covered by Operation Smile, which has been a presence in her life since she was a newborn. Shortly after her birth, the surgeon told Lucy’s father about the organization.

“I just noticed that I’ve been more confident and more sure of myself with my cleft palate,” Cotto said. “I’ve been able to educate others throughout my life. If they say anything rude, I’ve been able to calmly say I look like this for a reason; I was born with it. My whole life I’ve been trained to educate others instead of getting upset about it.”

For a seventh-grade poetry assignment, Cotto remembers writing her poem titled, “Once an Insecurity, Now an Inspiration.”

“Our differences are really just uniquenesses,” Cotto said. “Everybody has some form of uniqueness. We are all just people and we all may have one thing that makes us different. We’re not all cookie-cutter people.”

Cotto lives in Cross River with her parents, James and Cory, her 19-year-old brother, Raymond, and her 22-year-old sister, Carol Ann.

Donations can be made at operationsmile.org.