• October 2010

How The Smile Network Reconstructs Lives

By Kim Valentini
Smile Network International

Smile Network International is a global nonprofit humanitarian organization that provides life-altering reconstructive surgeries and related health-care services to impoverished children and young adults in developing countries.

Every year thousands of children are born in developing countries with facial deformities such as cleft lips and palates and suffer the humiliation and embarrassment of disfigurement. Oftentimes these children have difficulty eating, drinking, and speaking. As a result, many are malnourished and underdeveloped and lack energy, strength, and confidence. These children suffer rejection and social injustices and frequently are hidden away from the mainstream of everyday life.

Through local efforts, Smile Network International develops global partnerships that enable volunteers to build trust in foreign countries. These relationships provide Smile Network the opportunity to conduct surgical missions and to impart dignity and a better quality of life to individuals whose medical needs may otherwise go untreated. All Smile Network surgeries are provided free of charge.

The mission of Smile Network International is straightforward: to reconstruct lives one bright, smiling face at a time.

Our summer mission to Mbale, Uganda

We recently completed our first surgical mission in Uganda. With almost 2,000 children helped by Smile Network in the past few years we have been fortunate never to have lost a child. The statistics say that at some point, it will happen. More than likely, it will be an underlying, undetected health condition that causes a complication during surgery.

Sadly, though, two children did die en route to the mission site. Handicapped by their clefts and their inability to receive proper nutrition, these children died of malnourishment. Although not in our care, it left a hole in my heart to know the parents traveling to the mission site lost their children when they were so close to receiving the miracle they had been waiting for.

Recently a fellow Smile Network board member said to me about the surgeries, “It all matters. Even if it only matters to one small child in the middle of Africa, it all matters.”

Below, you’ll find a message from Alita Watson, one of the Smile Network employees who has been at the mission site in Uganda. Her letter reinforced that it does indeed all matter.

About Kim Valentini

Kim founded Smile Network International in May 2003 after 25 years in public relations and marketing. Kim left the corporate arena to do what she believes is her life’s work. Her travels with Smile Network have taken her to the far corners of the earth and off the beaten path. She has met with dignitaries of foreign countries, traveled to remote, poverty-stricken villages, and met hundreds of families and children along the way whose lives have been changed as a result of the free reconstructive surgeries.

Kim has been honored for her work with Smile Network as a KARE 11 “Eleven Who Care” award recipient and in a 2006 reception hosted by the first lady of Minnesota, Mary Pawlenty. Additionally Kim has served as a panelist for United States Senate Subcommittee hearings on U.S.-Latin American relations. The work of Smile Network International has been featured on national network affiliates, Minnesota Monthly magazine, Mpls/St. Paul Magazine, and Time magazine.

Kim resides in Minneapolis, is married to David Valentini, and is the mother of Gino and Isabella. Her children are the inspiration for her work. Contact Kim at kim@smilenetwork.org.

Smile Network Surgical Mission, July 1, 2010

By Alita Watson
Director of Site Development
Smile Network International

I write from the road leading from Mbale to Entebbe Uganda, where the Smile mission has come to an end after two amazing weeks of working with a group of people who now strangely feel like family.

I don’t think you can do something like we just did together and not feel bonded beyond the means of our assigned roles on this mission. We met some of the most kind and endearing people I have ever come across and saw things that were both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The hospital we were working in is the only one in the country that treats hydrocephalus, which causes a swelling of brain. In babies, whose skulls are still soft, it causes the circumference of their heads to expand. In the rural villages of Uganda, it is perceived as a freakish disorder (similar to cleft lip).

Mothers come here with their babies as a last hope, and some of them have sadly already given up. Yesterday I went to embrace a mother waiting to see a doctor. Her child had spina bifida, which had caused his head to swell to at least 10 times the normal size. He had received surgery months before to drain the fluid from the spinal cord.

She removed the child’s pants, and I was astonished at what I saw. This child would have had a chance of survival, but his mother had left him sitting in his own feces for 12 hours a day, causing him to develop horrific pressure soars. The mother had waited so long to come in for treatment that the infection had caused enormous holes through his small and fragile body cavity. Nothing has taken my breath away like that since I started this work, almost three years ago.

Another mother came to us holding her two-year old daughter, who had been set on fire with kerosene. Her hand had been burned into her chest and mutated. I became physically ill as I touched the little bit of soft, sweet skin that remained, next to the burnt and raw tissue that covered 90% of her body.

Nothing can be done for so many of these patients. There are only 10 practicing plastic surgeons and 16 anesthesiologists in the entire country of Uganda, which has a population of 30 million. This hospital is one of two that offers free medical care. The average Ugandan makes $1 a day and provides for a family of 8 to 10 people.

When you look around and let this start to sink in, your heart breaks. The only thing that relieves this morbidity is the love and the joy that come from making any difference we can.

We did 35 surgeries in just eight days, on children as young as two months and adults as old as 35. One woman, Evelyn, came to us with her husband. They told us they had been the laughing stock of their village. “Why would you marry a creature like that!,” the men would shout at her husband in public. The women excluded her from community functions, and the couple became isolated from their families altogether.

I wish you could have seen their faces when we came into the ward the morning after she’d received surgery. They were sitting on her bed, touching foreheads and he kept lifting her chin to stare at her beautiful new smile. It was amazing because you couldn’t even see stitches; she glowed with pride, knowing she would be returning to her village later that day saying “HA! You see now what a beauty I am!”

What a gift. What a gift! This is the hardest I can remember working in my life. The days were long and physically and emotionally exhausting. But what a true honor it has been to give this gift that will forever change the lives of each and every one of these people.

My family buried my grandfather today. He was a hero who led many men through tragic war and who always spoke for those who had no voice. While it’s difficult to be honoring his life from so far away, I know this is where he would want me to be right now.

My girls in Ghana await me tomorrow. Their hugs and smiles are exactly what I need today.

About Alita Watson
Director of Site Development
Smile Network International

Alita Watson has always had a passion for helping those who don’t have the resources or capabilities to access health care and education in the U.S and developing countries around the world. She has spent extensive time traveling through South and Central America and Africa, volunteering her time to develop projects that empower the impoverished populations.

In 2007, Alita started a project to assist young women in Ghana attend school (Brilliant Futures International) and currently has over 40 girls enrolled and excelling in their academics and communities. Alita’s efforts in Africa are what led her to Smile Network International, as this continent has, in many ways, become a second home to her. She joined Smile Network in the fall of 2007 for a temporary internship that led to another unexpected journey—developing new mission sites all over the world for Smile Network. A born adventurer with a passion to help others, Alita now travels the world building relationships and paving the way for Smile Network in Africa, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. She also serves as a mission coordinator and event organizer.

Before joining Smile Network, Alita worked in sales and marketing for several plastic surgery clinics in California. In her free time, she LOVES to sleep in or torture herself with Yoga.

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