By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN It was 8:15 a.m. Friday, March 26.
Anticipation filled the air as two sixth grade classes at Delano Middle School eagerly made their way to the auditorium.
Halfway around the world, the time was 9 p.m., and a little boy was getting ready for surgery.
Through a live simulcast provided by Scott Colesworthy of Soltrite, the sixth graders were able to see 7-year-old Halim, who was born with a cleft lip, before and after his operation.
The two classes recently raised $2,500, enough to give five children cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries, through non-profit organization Smile Network.
For children like Halim, a cleft lip or cleft palate birth defect often results in a life of ridicule, embarrassment, and isolation.
Simple things like going to school and getting married are unlikely.
“Those were opportunities that, before today, he probably wouldn’t have had,” Smile Network founder Kim Valentini said.
Halim’s family doesn’t speak English, but Alita Watson, Smile Network’s director of new site development, was able to bridge the language gap with the help of a translator.
“You are truly noble citizens,” Watson told the sixth grade classes.
Many students donated money they received as birthday and Christmas gifts, while others did extra chores to earn money, said Jessica Benker, one of the sixth grade teachers.
“Our initial goal was $500, and we exceeded that,” Benker said
Pamela Smith, the mother of Delano sixth-grader Ian, is a registered nurse who volunteers for Smile Network during her time off.
A few months ago, she spoke to Ian’s class about her experiences in India, and the class was touched by her stories.
“They took a more active interest and decided to do a fundraiser,” assistant principal David Lindeman said.
“We discussed it and voted on it,” Benker said. “We never dreamed it would end like this.”
This was Smile Network’s first live simulcast. Students were able to see the operating room, visit with the doctors, and ask questions about the surgery.
“How does it feel to know you’ve changed someone’s life?” student Annika Paulson asked the anesthesiologist.
“Obviously, it’s a very special feeling, which is why we keep doing it year after year,” he replied.
“How many children have you done surgery on?” student Shelby Olson asked.
“This is my 21st trip,” he answered, adding that Smile Network has performed 1,858 surgeries since its start in 2003.
Time for surgery
After the questions were answered, it was time for Halim to go into surgery.
The students wished him “good luck” in Indian, and went back to their classrooms to work.
“At about 10:50 a.m., we got a call that he was in recovery,” principal Renee Klinkner said.
Shortly after 11 a.m., the students went back to the auditorium to greet Halim and his grandparents.
“He was still pretty groggy,” Klinkner said.
According to the doctors, it will take a few days for immediate recovery, and Halim will be completely healed in about six months.
“It was an emotional moment for his grandpa,” Klinkner said. “All he could say was ‘thank you so much.’”
“I hope you realize the significance of what you have accomplished,” Valentini told the students.
About Smile Network
Valentini started Smile Network in 2003, out of gratitude for her own children, who were born in good health.
“I just felt blessed to have two healthy, beautiful children,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Through her background in public relations and marketing, Valentini learned about the thousands of children in developing nations who have cleft lip and cleft palate, but are unable to afford reconstructive surgery.
Thus, Smile Network was born. The organization consists of 6,000 volunteers and donors in the Twin Cities. Medical teams travel to countries like Kenya, Uganda, Peru, Mexico, Equador, and India.
“Soon, we will also be in Honduras and Guatemala,” Valentini said.
In addition to performing several surgeries each year, the medical volunteers train surgeons in developing countries, as well.
“We want them to become self-sufficient,” Valentini explained.
To learn more about Smile Network, go to www.smilenetwork.org.