It was early May of 2003, Kim Valentini, an accomplished marketing and public relations executive and a mother of two had just quit her career after 25 years of moving up the ranks. She got her kids off to school and was lounging around the house in her pajamas when she heard Oprah say on TV, “If you are a woman in your forties, put down everything you are doing, grab a pen and paper, and listen to my show. This show is for you”. Little did Kim know, that that show would change her life forever and lead her to a greater purpose in her life.
Almost like a bit of fate, Oprah’s show featured author Po Bronson who just released his new book titled “What Should I Do with My Life”. Kim was wondering this exact same question. Kim wanted to make a difference, be a voice for the people who didn’t have one. Immediately following the show, Kim launched a five-hour a week service project called the Smile Network. Little did she know, this five-hour a week service project would become a major global nonprofit organization.
Smile Network International is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that provides life-altering reconstructive surgeries to impoverished children and young adults around the world. Their mission is “to reconstruct lives, one bright, smiling face at a time”. Since 2003, Smile Network has become a truly global operation, performing over 4,000 life-changing surgeries in 11 countries across five continents.
I read about Kim’s story in a local magazine and I was so incredibly inspired by her story and her mission in life that I decided to meet with her in person and learn more. Over the next hour together we laughed, cried and bonded over what it means to be a woman, a mother and most of all, to find a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. I realized that I had come to meet with Kim at a pivotal time in my own life where I have been searching myself for what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Here is Kim’s inspiring story of how she has transformed thousands of lives including her own.
What inspired you to leave the corporate world and take a chance?
I had a great run in the corporate world. I was at a point where my kids were getting older and I realized that I had a blessed life. I had a great career, a wonderful family and a fulfilling life. But in my 40’s I began questioning what was my role in life and what was my purpose on this earth. I felt itchy and I began thinking about a departure from the corporate world and what could I do in the second act of my life.
This is a true story. I resigned from my position and on my first day of unemployment, I remembered Oprah was on TV. Oprah opened the show that day saying that if you a woman in your mid-forties and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your life this is your show. It was fate.
At some point, Oprah tells the listeners to get a pen and paper. Kim was still in her pajamas. For the next hour, she was mesmerized by the program and it felt like Oprah was talking to her. She had an author named Po Bronson on the show who wrote the book “What Should I Do with my Life: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question”, a book about how average people changed the course of the life by minor changes.
His position in the book is that you spend the first half of your life preparing for what you are really meant to do in your life. And, that everything that you do in your life -whether you are in the corporate world, a teacher or a mother – that it is all purposeful and meaningful and leading you to your path. Most of us have to go through the journey of life with all its highs and lows, until we find our place and are ready to give back and do more.
She bought the book and read it all in one night. She was hooked. She then bought 9 more copies to give to people who had been mentors in her life and told them to read it and then she would meet with each one of them in person to discuss her future. Kim had been toying with the idea of creating a 5-hour a week service project and wanted some advice.
What happened next?
After reading the book, everything came together very quickly. I wrote down a list of my passions in life. I wanted to travel more, open a boutique, create a small service project, and practice my photography. I passed out the book to several friends, met with them to get their ideas and moved forward. One of the friends I told my idea to said that if I needed someone to push me off the diving board and go for it, he would be the one. Three days later I was on a plane to Mexico and the only thing I knew is that I wanted to work with kids born with cleft palates.
A friend gave me his home in Mexico to use as a base to explore my idea. I had no real plans on how I’d figure it all out and was still wondering what on earth I was doing as the plane took off. Then again, fate came into play. After the plane landed in Mexico, I waste a restaurant trying to figure out a game plan, when I met a man who connected me to a person who could help out. A few days later I met with the governor’s wife of Mexico. Thirteen weeks later, I was in Acapulco doing our very first surgery.
How did your idea become a reality?
The initial plan was to help 25-50 kids a year born with this birth defect but little did I know that the universe had a much bigger plan for me. Fast forward to today, seventeen years later, my five-hour a week service project has turned into a global organization helping thousands. Smile Network has led over 90 missions in 11 countries on five continents, and we have performed life-altering surgeries on over 4,000 children and young adults.
It has been a culmination of all my experience, both professional and personal, that has led me to this place. So many people have so many hopes and dreams and lay awake at night thinking about what they are going to do with their life. However, there is a big difference between those that act on their dreams and those that don’t listen to that inner voice. Sometimes you just have to jump. One of my favorite mantras is “jump, look later”. Of course, you have to jump responsibly but if you never take any chances and try something new, then you will never achieve your dreams. In life, especially as women, we give ourselves a lot of good excuses why now is not a good time. You have to give yourself permission to take a chance and go for it.
What has helped you succeed in running Smile Network?
Having strong business acumen and over 25 years of experience in the corporate world has been critical to our success. I run Smile Network like a business with the belief that passion alone does not pay the bills. I’ve applied everything I’ve learned from the business world to the nonprofit world which I attribute much to our success. We run a very lean organization by only four women and we all wear a lot of hats. The greatest percentage of our incoming dollars goes to fund our surgeries and that to me is amazing.
How do you get people to volunteer?
Today, I’m proud to say that we have a waiting list for our missions. All of our surgeons are some of the top cranial, facial surgeons in the world and they all donate their time and talent for our missions.
Medical volunteer teams donate all of their time and talent and medical companies provide many of the supplies. Yet we still must pay for travel, lodging, and medicines, which bring the average cost of a procedure to $500. In 45 minutes, Smile Network can provide life-changing surgery and other healthcare-related services to impoverished children and adults in developing nations.
How many missions a year do you do?
We do about 5-10 missions/year depending on the year. We generally average about 50 kids a mission and have done as many as 125 children in five days.
Why does this work matter?
Thousands of children are born every year with facial deformities such as cleft lips or palate. The humiliation and embarrassment of these defects often lead to a life full of struggles but physically and mentally. Not only do these children struggle with eating, drinking, and speaking, they are often ostracized from their communities forcing them and their families to live a life of isolation. These children are often malnourished, underdeveloped and lack confidence and sometimes even a future.
The good news is that Smile Network is able to repair a child’s birth defect and restore joy and dignity in their lives.
What is the Inspire Boutique:
Three years ago, we created Inspire Boutique, a retail boutique benefiting Smile Network, located in our Loring Park (Minneapolis) headquarters.
I source goods from around the world from economically impoverished women who are making high quality, unique items. Every piece of merchandise has a story about the artisan behind it and helps empower women. For example, we work with a co-op of weavers in Peru who are very poor but are making really high-quality goods. We know that when we buy goods from economically impoverished women that they spend their money on food for their children and education. So I specifically seek out these opportunities so when you buy these goods, it is a unique, beautifully-made product that benefits a woman and gives back, making a difference helping women and kids
All items are purchased at fair trade prices and 100% of sales go back to Smile Network’s free, life-altering surgeries.
You also offer Adventure Travel Experiences. What makes these trips special?
I created adventure travel experiences that marry people’s passion for travel and doing good in pockets of the world where there is need. For all trips, travelers commit to raising money for Smile Network. There are two trips that happen each year – Peru and the Camino.
For Peru, trekkers raise money for the surgical mission that will follow the trek. After trekking the Inca trail, participants get to go to a surgical site and meet with families who are benefiting from our life-altering surgeries. It is a very powerful experience and is life-changing for many who go. To date, we have taken over 500 people on the Inca Trail trek and the trip has become an essential part of our fundraising.
We also take people on the Camino de Santiago. Once again, the participants not only pay for their trip but raise money and awareness for Smile Network. For both trips, 100% of the donations will directly fund surgeries for children.
As I left Smile Network Kim’s words were swimming around in my head. She had told me that it was serendipitous that I was there meeting with them and that a lot of women at this transitional point in their life find their way to Smile Network. Perhaps there is a bit of fate in our meeting too. As soon as I got home, I instantly ordered the book and realize that I too have so much more in store.
All photos courtesey of Smile Network