Smiles from Lima

The trekkers finished the four-day, 26 mile trek to more than 13,000 feet and saw  their first glimpse of Machu Picchu when they reached the Gate of the Sun.

The trek is over and onto the mission, the reason they have been training and working so hard to raise awareness and funds to sponsor surgeries of children born with cleft lips and palates in Peru.  The weekend was spent at the hospital in Lima where they witnessed firsthand the life-changing surgeries and met the children and families whose lives will be forever changed.

Thank you Sue, Stacy, Mary, Diane and Emily! IMG_3746IMG_3794IMG_3800

Change the world. Change the future. Change a life.



Machu Picchu!

Today the trekkers will arrive to their destination, the famed Machu Picchu.  Tonight they will celebrate their achievement in the mountain town of Aguascalientes.   They will get their first shower in over four days and get to sleep in a real bed!

Tomorrow they will travel back to Lima to meet the children for whom they have laced up their hiking boots and did the hard work of raising money and awareness for the children awaiting surgeries.

Change the world. Change the future. Change a life.



The Climb to 13,828 Feet

Yesterday the trekkers set out on a trip of a lifetime, hiking the famed Inca Trail.

Today, they were faced with one of the most difficult challenges of their life – the climb to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828 feet up in the Andes Mountains. In camp tonight they will celebrate their victory.

Thank you Sue Moerer,  Stacy Brehman, Mary Newstrom, Diane Rubright and Emily Samfield  for embarking on this incredible journey and changing the lives of the children you will soon meet at the Lima mission site.

Change the world. Change the future. Change a life.

Dead Woman’s Pass 13,828 feet

The Journey Begins

Everyone got a good night rest under the light of a full moon in the Andes before setting out on a trek of a lifetime.

This morning they checked in at the Government Checkpoint where the trailhead is at 7,000 feet. They crossed the raging Urubamba River on a rope bridge and will trek for about six hours before arriving at their first campsite at 8,500 feet.

The five trekkers are in excellent hands led by our wonderful Trail Guide, Rony, who will be taking them up the mountain along with  cooks and porters carrying all the the supplies, including the food, tents, and everything they need for the four-day trek!


sacred Valley

No Turning Back!

This afternoon, five volunteers embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, to raise awareness and funds to bring smiles to children across the globe through Smile Network International.

The group consists of a wide range of individuals ages 17-61 including a US Air Force Veteran, psychologist and 17-year old high school student. They departed today from Minneapolis for Peru where they will hike the Inca Trail – a four-day, high-elevation 26-mile stone-paved trek to the famed city of Machu Picchu.

After completing the trek, they will participate in a Smile Network mission in Lima, Peru where they will meet the patients and families and see firsthand the life-changing surgeries.  The trekkers give their time, heart and financial support to make these surgical missions possible. To date, this group of trekkers has raised nearly $20,000!

You can monitor the team’s ascent to the 14,000 feet summit as they progress to Machu Picchu here on the Smile Network blog or by following Smile Network on Facebook.

As for some words of wisdom for the group … No turning back. Can’t wait!


Amigas on the Camino

30 adventurous Smile Network donors walked 80 miles from the tip of Portugal through Spain on the famed Camino in September.  The group raised $95,000 that will  provide free life-changing surgeries to impoverished children in developing countries.   Thank you to all our donors, and their friends and families who raised both awareness and dollars for Smile Network.

Change the world.Change the future. Change a life.

Guest post from trekker Anita Muldoon

Mi Amigas,

I awoke this morning with a pit from the silence that surrounded us; no familiar faces, no laughter. I missed you all.
We made our way by foot to the bus station in the pouring rain. As we rode to the airport, I imagined us all along the way and I was grateful for the glorious days we had to walk our miles. I saw many trekkers forging through the storm; I knew the drill- they were almost there!

I thought of you all, and imagined your laughter, when Said and I took an hour to work our way out of the Avis Rental place. First, the digital programming of the  Audi is all in Spanish and then our ticket didn’t work to get our of the parking lot. We spent our first 10km driving in circles!!
We made our way to Fisterra; to the end of the earth. It was beautiful, even in the rain, but not enough to hold us. We ended up driving back from whence we came, spending the night just outside of Ponteverda. Missing Kim’s expertise, we found a one star (1*) hotel and, with trepidation, lugged our suitcases up the stairs to find a wonderful, quaint little room, and a delicious meal, including garlic soup!! Fear not, we shared the jus de garlic!!
Anyway, I just want to say that I hope you all made it home safely and with the warmth of heart that I have come to feel for all of you. I will remember each step we shared, with a smile, and especially because of the smiles we earned together, on the little faces yet unknown.
Love to you all, and with much gratitude-


trek 2

Stepping Forward on the El Camino de Santiago

By Guest Blogger Caryn Sullivan- Author of Bitter or Better and Columnist for the Pioneer Press

September 6, 2015

On August 30 I joined a group of mostly strangers to walk the Portuguese route of the El Camino de Santiago. Unlike several of my fellow trekkers, I was not particularly well-versed on the history of the El Camino so it was not the history that drew me in. I’d signed on because I needed a physical challenge to reclaim my body and reboot my spirit after an emotionally draining and  sedentary winter, during which I completed and published my memoir, Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page. Walking 80 miles for Smiles in a country I’d yet to visit sounded like a good way to do so. And, as I discovered, six days of walking afforded a lot of opportunity for reflection and writing.


September 2, 2015 

Our group of 16 has been together for days now, taking one step after another, though it feels as if we’ve been together much longer. We’ve traversed asphalt roadways and vine-draped countrysides, revealing vulnerabilities that transform strangers into confidants. We’ve spoken of loved ones we’ve lost, from infants to adult children to spouses and parents, sharing stories of life with and without them. As we’ve walked through forests, resplendent with lush verdant ferns, we’ve spoken of adventures we’ve taken and dream of taking, never knowing if at the next turn we’ll encounter a spray of purple bougainvilleas cascading down a wall or roosters huddling between cornstalks.

It might be serendipitous that so many of us have experienced great challenges in our lives. Or perhaps it is not an accident, for the El Camino is renowned for attracting soul-searching “peregrinos” – trekkers who walk dozens to hundreds of miles to reach the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims are searching for many things. Some may not even realize they are doing so. Others are on a definite mission.

We walk in pairs and groups up and down steep inclines, some of us using poles to propel us forward, others only sheer determination. Occasionally, we drop back and walk without a partner. I imagine others are indulging memories and thoughts about the future, as I do in my solitary moments. Many of us leave prayers and rocks at churches and makeshift monuments, some with forethought and others, like me, more spontaneously.

Though tears have been spilled along the way, we’ve shared many lighthearted moments, too, as over meals and wine we’ve exposed the lighter sides of ourselves. I’ve delighted in discovering that many of my fellow adventurers are perceptive students of life, mindful of a choice: we can be bitter – or we can be better. Many of us have made the choice to not only be better ourselves, but also to step forward to bring more children and families into the Smile Network fold. For in addition to our personal motives, we’re raising awareness about children (and occasionally adults) who are born with cleft lips and palates but without the means to pay for the corrective surgeries to repair them. Together, we 16, strangers no longer, are walking 80 miles to pay for new smiles. When we leave Spain we will do so with new blisters, friends, and memories, and the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others.


Camaraderie on the Inca Trail

Guest Blog by By Caryn Sullivan, Pioneer PRess

When I heard about the mix of Minnesotans who were going to climb the Inca Trail together in July, I thought, “I’d like to be a fly in that mess tent!” After all, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau and Pam Borton, former Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball coach, don’t typically travel in the same social circles, much less to a foreign country together. Yet, they were part of a group of 18 who signed up for a Smile Network International adventure and mission trip.

Curious about how they had fared, I checked in with several of the trekkers. They offered similar reflections in separate conversations.

Tim and Mary Pawlenty had never camped with their daughters. So for their first camping experience Mary Pawlenty immersed herself in planning, ensuring they had the proper clothing and equipment for Peru’s winter conditions. All the shopping and lists could not have prepared them for the impact of the trip.

“The physical challenge, the quality of the individuals, the majestic beauty of the Andes, the rich history of the culture, the support of the Peruvian porters…” Mary Pawlenty was enraptured as she described the trip to me in a noisy cafeteria.

The Pawlentys not only undertook a physical challenge, they also stepped out of their comfort zone by participating in an intimate adventure with strangers, sleeping in such close quarters even whispered voices carried.

“Tim’s a politician, so he’s always got a buffer around him,” Mary Pawlenty explained. “For him to have some of those walls break down and for him to be willing to be in that environment was kind of a big deal. I don’t think there was any particular moment when that happened. It was pretty clear along the way that it just needed to happen because you can’t function in those settings if you don’t just relax into the real. And we did. There was never a conversation. It happened naturally.”

“I think it may also have helped that Pam (Borton) has done what she has done, that the chief has done what she has done. It allowed us all to be on a bit of an equal footing,” Mary Pawlenty, a retired district court judge, said. “We all knew how we can set aside that component of our lives. You didn’t feel like anyone cared about any of that… Every step of the way, whether it was just a good laugh or a word of encouragement, there was something about the camaraderie. It was really clear that political differences did not exist in that moment. I just don’t know that you can go on a trek like that and keep up barriers that exist based on ways that you are different.”

Mary Pawlenty chuckled as she noted that her husband was the only adult male among many women. “In so many settings he’s around people who look and act and think exactly like he does and nothing could have been further from that reality on this particular trek. He adapted as well as I’ve ever seen him adapt to anything. He loved it.”

Despite emails reminding them to train for the climb, the Pawlentys did not focus on training. They stay in shape by running and assumed that would be adequate. The first day was manageable. But the second day was as physically challenging and psychologically daunting as anything they’d done before.

Borton had trained hard for the climb by running, hitting the StairMaster, and taking “hot yoga” classes. She wanted to test herself, so she pushed hard the first couple of days, then slowed down and went into coach mode.

Day two of the trek is grueling because hikers climb thousands of rugged stone stairs to Dead Woman’s Pass. As she struggled, Mary Pawlenty was mindful there would be no helicopter rescue. Nor was there a slide to transport her to the bottom of the trail. How was she going to make it to the top? Suddenly, Borton appeared at her side. Though she didn’t recall the coach’s words, Mary Pawlenty remembered their impact. It was the right time, the right message, and the right amount of encouragement from a woman she’d just met.

Borton acknowledged that one of her strengths is reading people. She observed that Mary Pawlenty seemed to be running on fumes. An expert in coaching athletes and executives, Borton told the former first lady she was doing a great job and should keep going.

Though she had equivocated about going on the trip without her partner, Borton ultimately concluded there was a reason she was supposed to go. The brief encouragement she offered Mary Pawlenty was repeated many times as she empowered her fellow travelers. “People see me as being the coach,” she said. “They don’t want to let down the coach.” As she watched others struggle to ascend the mountain, she was reminded that we can do more than we think we can, mentally and physically.

Gino Valentini, 21, first hiked the Inca Trail when he was 10 years old. On the July trip he served as Smile Network’s coordinator and assistant guide. He’s been well trained by his mother, Kim Valentini, who started Smile Network in 2003 to provide cleft lip and palate surgeries to people who cannot afford them.

Though he has been a part of many groups that tackled the trail, Gino Valentini said there was something special about the camaraderie of this group. There were a lot of Type A personalities, and at times he felt like he was herding kittens. But from the outset the college students, politicians, pharmacist and Silicon Valley techie were all on a first-name basis. “It was interesting for me because these are all influential people who I look up to.”

Before the trip Gino Valentini, who attends college in Montana, didn’t know who Janee Harteau was. He discovered that, unencumbered by her bulletproof vest and 20-pound belt, the Minneapolis police chief was not only lighthearted, but hilarious. With the mess tent serving as home base, the group shared meals, stories and songs. Harteau had a story for everything. “She’s been there, done that, and seen things I couldn’t imagine,” Gino Valentini said.

Perhaps the diversity was part of the magic. Borton said they had the right mix of people, all of whom were there for the right reasons. The intimacy engendered new perspectives. No longer viewing them from afar, Borton discovered the Pawlentys were fun and funny.

Mary Pawlenty offered similar sentiments. “Everybody comes from such different backgrounds. For a group of people that is so different and diverse to come together the way we did feels like a dream.”

The climb was also thought provoking. As Mary Pawlenty shared some of her thoughts, it struck me that they also apply to how we live our lives. “How can I take another step? How will I manage this next challenge? Will I have the good judgment to turn around and look at what’s beautiful in all directions? Will I at the end be generally happy with the company I’ve kept? How am I doing relationally with people I’m journeying with?”

The experience changed her family in many ways. They’ve become more intentional about their time and their philanthropy. They’ve embraced camping and hiking and vacations with a purpose.

And the trip may have been a catalyst for a different type of change. With her husband working in the private sector in Washington, D.C., Mary Pawlenty yearns to return to what she considers a more normal life. “There may have been an element to what was happening along the trail that made me feel like we could be real people among others in that kind of a setting. That was helpful to me as we’re on the road toward being just a regular family in Minnesota. That might have been one of the joys I experienced.”


Editor’s Note:

Caryn M. Sullivan of Eagan is a contributing columnist for the Pioneer Press and author of the book “Bitter or Better.” Her email address is At the moment, she is on a Smile Network trip in Spain and will be blogging about it at