by Larry Kolczak

Back in January, 2023, I read a life-altering article in the Guadalajara Reporter. The article, by Dale Hoyt Palfrey, described a medical project that would be conducted in the Lake Chapala area from May 11-16, 2024. The project wouldn’t change my life, but it would put a smile on the faces of up to 50 disadvantaged children and adults who would otherwise be cursed to live with disfiguring birth defects called cleft lip and cleft palate. In addition to a deformed upper lip, people with these afflictions often suffer from a severe speech impediment causing them to have a very nasal voice, and difficulty pronouncing hard consonants like b, d, g, k, and ch.

The project was being conducted by a non-profit organization called Smile Network International (SNI) in cooperation with a number of local agencies. SNI was bringing a team of surgeons and medical staff to conduct the corrective surgeries free of charge at the Ribera Medical Center, located on the Libramiento.

This article struck a chord with me because, back in 1945, I had been born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. I was fortunate to have had corrective surgery as a baby that was so successful that I had no speech impediment at all. In fact, public speaking has been an integral part of my entire working life.

I attribute my good fortune to three things. First, my parents were able to afford a top-notch surgeon. Second was my Aunt Jean, who had been an army nurse who served in France during WWII. She was a very devout Catholic, and while still in France at the end of the war, she visited the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. She brought back a small bottle of holy water from that sacred spring. She gave it to my mother and told her to feed me a teaspoonful after my surgery.

The third thing that I believe improved my speech was my mischievous grandfather. He was a happy-go-lucky Irishman from whom I’ve been told I must have inherited my sense of humor. When I was old enough to talk, my mom explained to him that I needed to practice saying the hard consonants. He came up with just the ticket. Imagine my mother’s surprise when she took her toddler to the grocery store and I was greeting all the customers with a loud, clear “goddammit” and “son of a bitch.”

So, for whatever reason I managed to overcome my birth defect, I wanted to do something to help others less fortunate than I was. And here was the opportunity, in my very own community and at a hospital that was walking distance from my home. I looked up the SNI web page (smilenetwork.org) and called their information number. To my surprise, I didn’t get some call center in Bangalore, India. I got Kim Valentini, the woman who established this non-profit back in 2003. Since then they have sponsored free surgeries in 13 countries around the world. In Mexico alone, SNI has helped 1,500 patients.

Kim said that, unlike some other organizations, SNI uses 80% of its funding for the actual program, and only 20% for administration. What’s more, the volunteer surgeons are specialists in cleft lip and palate surgery. And all the medical staff is
affiliated with the internationally renowned Mayo Clinic. I couldn’t ask for better credentials than that.

Kim assured me my contribution would be used for the Chapala-area patients. In fact, she invited me to come to the Ribera Medical Center on May 11th, and she’d introduce me to the patients that I was helping. She said I was welcome to bring
along all the holy water from Lourdes I could carry. But she suggested I resist the temptation to teach the kids my grandfather’s speech therapy lesson.

For more information, or to make a donation, go to the SNI website at