Smile Network International in Plymouth

The Smile Network’s quest to surgically repair cleft lips and palates can be a life-altering experience—for more than just the patients.
Kim with her children Gino and Isabella on a mission trip.

The mission is simple: to reconstruct lives, one bright, smiling face at a time. Since its inception in 2003, Smile Network International has been saving and changing the lives of patients born with cleft lips and cleft palates in underprivileged countries. Founder Kim Edwards made a bold move when she stepped away from a 25-year career in public relations. “I wanted to give five hours a week into giving back,” she says. “What I didn’t realize was that five-hour commitment was going to mushroom into a 55-hour per week commitment,” she says.

Family, travel and volunteerism are three things Edwards won’t live without; her son Gino, 17, and daughter Isabella, 16, have been traveling with Edwards from a young age and are often by her side on the missions. 

“We bring other children and teenagers on the missions with us because kids have a universal language. They can instill calm and peace within the children without speaking the same language,” Edwards says.

Smile Network is truly a unique organization; 89 cents of every dollar donated is given right back to the patients. More importantly, the spirit of the volunteers who help both stateside and on the surgical missions is something that no one can put a price on.

“We have the opportunity to change hundreds of lives,” says Edwards. With just more than 2,000 surgical procedures completed since 2003, it’s safe to say that more than just hundreds of lives have been changed.

Here’s a closer look at what goes into making the organization so successful.         

The Volunteers

Plane reservations, hotel accommodations, maintaining thriving relationships with host hospitals—you name it, Carolyn Walsko does it.

Walsko, a five-year volunteer with Smile Network International and 25-year Plymouth resident, says her job is to act as a coordinator and liaison between the volunteers, host countries and patients.

“If someone is unhappy, it is my job to make sure they become happy,” she says. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job. Our goal is to operate on a schedule that allows each child to be seen.”

The hardest part of a mission, Walsko admits, is having to turn patients away, so Walsko works diligently to ensure a tight schedule is maintained to provide maximum results while on each mission.  

Although he’s not been on a mission yet, Plymouth resident Michael Lester has been heavily involved in supporting Smile Network stateside, ever since he attended the organization’s annual gala in 2006.

“Every charity has people that believe in it, but the people supporting Smile Network live it. It was more than just talk,” he says of what attracted him initially and what keeps him involved. “This is a group that is willing to put both money and time into the effort—willing to become personally involved.”

As Lester prepares to travel to Tanzania and climb Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the mission next summer, he says he cannot wait to become even more involved.

The Board Member

When founder Kim Valentini was searching for sponsors to increase awareness of the organization, she went to various publications to drum up support. “She made a powerful presentation, and we were delighted to become her print advocate,” says Nancy Benedict, former editor of Minnesota Monthly Magazine and also a Plymouth resident.

Benedict’s involvement wasn’t purely for business’s sake. “As the magazine became more involved with Smile Network, so did I. I felt the mission of the organization was simple but life-changing,” she says. “Their energy and passion were contagious.”

As a board member, Benedict (now the event director for Open Arms MN) was able to provide marketing, media and sponsorship advice and support as the organization began to take off. She says the simple mission and values are what make the foundation so strong. “I worry about their safety sometimes as they head into countries with delicate political balance,” she says. “But that won’t stop them if there is a child in need.”

The Doctor

When Dr. Arif Somani, a Plymouth resident of just fewer than two years, heard about the opportunity to join one of his colleagues on a mission with Smile Network, he jumped at the chance. His first trip took him to Kenya, a locale he was already familiar with as he had volunteered there during med school.

Somani now works as a pediatrician in the Intensive Care Unit at Minnesota Children’s Hospital. On the mission last April, Somani worked closely with 15 volunteers and support staff to identify and screen potential candidates for surgery.

“I think screenings were the key part,” he says. “It helps you identify the risk factors, the problems and what type of surgery they most need. It helps to prioritize the schedule,” he says. In just five days, Somani and the team of skilled doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists and other highly qualified volunteers were able to successfully complete 30 surgeries on 28 patients.

The length of surgery time is around 45 minutes and has the capacity to change every patient’s life in ways they wouldn’t even expect. In Africa, for example, children and adults living with cleft lips and cleft palates are prone to malnutrition and a higher risk of infection. In many cases, this surgery saves lives.

One of the main differences between Somani’s work in hospitals in the United States and the hospital in Kenya was not the sense of urgency, as that can be felt no matter where you are. He noted that the sense of relief and delight was so tangible in the recovery room it was unlike any other.

“When they come out of the operating room, everyone is all smiles and happy,” Somani says. “In the United States hospitals, there is a lot of privacy between patients. You have a whole room to yourself. In Kenya, you’re all together in a whole ward. There’s no sense of immediate privacy, so when a patient comes back the whole ward is excited and joyous about their arrival.”

A Worthy Cause

Smile Network International runs a mission every few months. Last month, volunteers and surgeons traveled to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to complete the sixth mission of 2011.

“The missions are so useful not only for the kids and the patients we work on, but for the participants and the donors as well,” says Dr. Arif Somani, who traveled to Kenya last spring and plans to return next summer if his schedule will allow it.

Next April marks the first trip of 2012, and participants will visit Santiago, Guatemala. To learn more, make a donation or become involved, call 612.377.1800 or visit

Smile Network by the Numbers

What started as a small group of 25 volunteers and donors in 2003 has developed into a booming network of more than 10,000 people in just eight years. Take a closer look at the organization’s life-changing effect on underprivileged children and adults around the world.

2003    Number of volunteers and donors: 25

            Number of missions: 1 (Guerrero, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 60

            Number of procedures: 68


2004    Number of missions: 2 (Guerrero, Mexico; Queretaro, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 124

            Number of procedures: 133


2005    Number of missions: 3 (Lima, Peru; Guerrero, Mexico; Aguascalientes, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 185

            Number of procedures: 205


2006    Number of missions: 2 (Lima, Peru; San Luis Posoti, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 150

            Number of procedures: 177


2007    Number of missions: 6 (Lima, Peru; Guerrero, Mexico; Cusco, Peru; Puebla, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 288

            Number of procedures: 323


2008    Number of missions: 8 (Lima, Peru; Cuernavaca, Mexico; Guerrero, Mexico; Cusco, Peru; Puebla, Mexico; Yerevan, Armenia; Tuxztla, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 378

            Number of procedures: 418


2009    Number of missions: 7 (Lima, Peru; Cajamarca, Peru; Huanuco, Peru; Puebla, Mexico; Cusco, Peru; Azogues, Ecuador)

            Number of patients: 296

            Number of procedures: 332


2010    Number of missions: 8 (Bhuj, India; Calcutta, India; Huanuco, Peru; Lima, Peru; Mbale, Uganda; Cusco, Peru; Ambato. Ecuador; Puebla, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 365

            Number of procedures: 403


2011    Number of missions: 6 (Mbale, Uganda; Kjabe, Kenya; Santiago, Guatemala;Cusco, Peru; Iquito, Peru; Puebla, Mexico)

            Number of patients: 158 (excludes Puebla, Mexico)

            Number of procedures: 167