Trekking with purpose

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March 1, 2010
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
// Smile Network unveils Global Ventures program for mission-driven travelers //


Smile Network, a North Loop-based nonprofit, has launched a new international travel program matching adventure treks with charitable work.

The Global Ventures initiative features five- to 10-day adventure travel experiences in Peru, Africa, India and Ecuador this year.

The participants help raise money for the Smile Network, an organization that provides reconstructive surgeries for children and young adults born with cleft lips or palates.

The treks provide the organization with another important revenue stream, said Kim Valentini, founder of the Smile Network.

“Every adventure travel experience butts up against a surgical campaign,” Valentini said. “Our trekkers are doing those trips to raise money and raise awareness, but the real beauty is they have the opportunity after the hard work is done to come back to a surgical site and see what the result of their hard work was — the money that they raise and how it’s getting used.”

The travelers pay for their expenses, which start around $1,500. They also agree to raise money for the Smile Network through letter-writing campaigns. One hundred percent of the donations they collect go to the surgical mission going on during their trips.

The treks lined up for the year include a hike along the Singalila Trek on the border between India and Nepal this month; a trek up Mt. Elgon on the border of Uganda and Kenya in June; a climb up the Inca Trail in Peru in August; a biking, hiking and horseback riding adventure in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador in September; and yoga retreats in Peru in August and Ecuador in September.

The yoga retreats are a new component of Smile Network’s adventure travel opportunities organized by Lori Cheney, a Smile Network volunteer who went on a trek with her husband in Peru last August. Cheney, who was recently certified as a Viniyoga teacher, is the founder of the St. Paul-based group Mats on a Mission, which combines her love of yoga, travel and charitable work.

The couple’s work with the Smile Network has had a big impact on their lives, Cheney said.

“We just thought this was going to be a hike up the Inca Trail — an adventure with our friends,” she said. “We’ve been involved ever since. There was just no way we were not going to be involved.”

Valentini started the Smile Network in 2003. As she was approaching the age of 50, her goal was to help 50 kids get reconstructive surgeries a year. To date, the Smile Network has operated on 1,858 children on 22 surgical campaigns.

Her home in the Kenwood neighborhood served as headquarters for the organization until recently — now she shares space with the Walsh Design Group/ID Inside Design, an interior design firm and home furnishings showroom in the North Loop.

In addition to her office headquarters, the designers at the showroom have agreed to let the Smile Network sell items from their Global Collection, handmade items made by artisans in impoverished areas around the world.

The Smile Network trekkers have diverse backgrounds. Participants have been as young as 11 and as old as 69. Surgeons and other medical professionals donate their time to perform the reconstructive surgeries. Each surgery costs about $500.

“Everybody gets to feel like they make a difference,” Valentini said. “The trekkers are lacing up their boots and doing the hard work, but the donors are paying for those kids’ surgeries.”