Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

A good leader.

Inspirational.

Passionate.

A servant heart.

These are the words educators at St. Patrick School, Norfolk, use repeatedly to describe eighth-grader Julia Varverud. And those are key characteristics that prompted the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) to give her a 2019 Youth Virtues, Valor and Vision Award.

“Julia is just one of a kind,” said Isabel Anderson, St. Patrick middle school director. “She is the most selfless person I know.”

The NCEA partners annually with the international relief and development ministry Cross Catholic Outreach to bestow the award upon 10 Catholic students from across the country whose service, leadership and passion are creating a lasting impact on their communities, explained Andrea Chavez-Kopp, NCEA assistant director for educational and formation programs.

Experience motivation for effort 

Varverud’s lasting impact is the club she created and leads at the school to support the Operation Smile, an international medical charity which has provided hundreds of thousands of free surgeries, often life-saving, for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate or other dental and facial conditions. Cleft lip and palate can cause eating and speech problems.

Three experiences sparked Varverud’s desire to start a school-wide effort to support Operation Smile: Her fifth-grade class visited the organization’s headquarters in Virginia Beach. She watched the organization’s YouTube videos. She discussed the charity with family friend Kristie Porcaro, a senior vice president with Operation Smile whose parents, Dr. William Magee Jr. and Kathleen Magee, founded the organization.

“It gave me a passion in life,” Varverud said. “I wanted to impact people. I wanted to make a difference.”

After receiving administrative approval, she worked to establish the club’s constitution and bylaws over the summer with guidance from Steve Hammond, principal, and Marilyn Ertel, director of religious studies at St. Patrick and teacher sponsor of the club.  When Varverud returned to school in the fall 2016 as a sixth-grader, she spoke at a school assembly to recruit members for the club. Ten students responded. There are now more than 20 members.

Since its inception, the school’s Operation Smile Club has raised approximately $11,500, which has provided funds for up to 48 surgeries. Each fall, the club has a Soccer for Smiles fundraising event in which students in different grade levels compete in short matches of about 10 minutes each. The event culminates with a slightly longer match among faculty, staff, parents and alumni. Soccer for Smiles raised $1,000 in 2016, $2,000 in 2017 and $3,000 this school year. 

A one-mile Fun Run and a three-mile run for students, parents and faculty in spring 2017 brought in $1,500, and a dodgeball game in spring 2018 that raised $4,000. Another dodgeball game is planned for this spring. 

“It goes to show that kids can change the world,” Varverud said. “They can make a difference. They can change a life.”

In the spring of sixth grade, Varverud and her mother made a 10-day mission trip to Nicaragua with the organization. There she played with the children before their surgeries to distract them from their anxiety and comforted them afterward when they were in recovery. She witnessed the parents’ and children’s relief and joy after the operations. 

The trip altered her perception of the world when she saw the poverty in Nicaragua. As a result, she said she is more grateful for what she has and tries not to sweat the small stuff that comes her way.

Inspiring others

The club has inspired students at Rochester School in Bogotá, Colombia, an independent Catholic school which has an exchange student relationship with St. Patrick School, to create their own group to support Operation Smile. Students in the St. Patrick Operation Smile Club are sharing tips and ideas through Skype, Varverud said.  

In spring, she and five founding members of the club will travel to Bogatá where they will assist at an Operation Smile clinic and will help Rochester School with its own Soccer for Smiles event. 

Varverud is the older of Luciana and Johan Varverud’s children. They have a son, Lucas, in sixth grade. Mother, sister and brother are members of Sacred Heart Parish, Norfolk.

According to Anderson, the girl gives “100 percent in everything she does,” whether it’s academics, athletics, community service or theater. She has narrowed her extracurricular activities to her two passions – Operation Smile and theater.

‘Generosity of spirit’

Since performing in the musical “Schoolhouse Rock” during third grade, Varverud has been in nine other school productions. 

She takes voice, acting and dance lessons outside of school. She said she enjoys theater because of the camaraderie with fellow cast members, being able to step into the shoes of someone new with each role, and having the opportunity to be part of a performance that “impacts” the audience with its story. 

Anderson said that although Varverud’s musical and theatrical talents are “off-the-charts amazing,” she does not seek the limelight for her performances nor for her other efforts such as Operation Smile. 

“She has these great gifts, strengths and talents but her humility outweighs them all,” Anderson said.

Educators said Varverud is a role model for her peers.

Anderson said students “know that everything she does comes from a place of love and compassion.”

Hammond praised her “generosity of spirit,” adding, “She has a joy about her.”