White Bear Lake couple Kyle and Janell Stanton Soderberg just returned from an adventure of a lifetime, all to raise awareness and funds to bring smiles to children.

The Soderbergs trekked the legendary Inca Trail as a fundraiser for Smile Network International, a nonprofit, Minnesota-based humanitarian organization that provides life-altering, reconstructive surgeries to impoverished children and young adults in developing countries.

They joined a group of 12 Minnesotans, including businessmen and women, an Air National guardsman, medical professionals and parents of a child born with a cleft lip, to hike the Inca Trail — a four-day, high-elevation, 26-mile stone-paved trek to the famed city of Machu Picchu. After completing the journey, they joined the Smile Network medical team as volunteers at a mission site in Lima, Peru, where they saw firsthand the life-changing surgeries.  

Kyle and Janell love the outdoors, whether it's hiking, backpacking, skiing or simply being immersed in nature. Kyle is a youth minister and coordinator of community outreach for a church in St. Anthony Village. Janell is an attorney who specializes in employment law. Both are passionate about volunteering and could not say no to the trek with Smile Network.

The hike along the ancient trail was challenging. The terrain changed constantly uphill and down, and elevation ranged from 9,000 to 14,000 feet. But the spectacular scenery and the camaraderie along the trail far outweighed blistered feet and exhaustion.

And then there was the surgery.

The couple raised $7,000 for Smile Network, enough for more than a dozen surgeries. Some of their money paid for surgery on an 8-month-old boy born with a cleft palate and lip. They watched over the surgeon's shoulder as the disfigurement was repaired.

“When we saw the lip on the child close in the operating room, we knew it was all worth it,” Kyle said. Everything made sense for us.”

Janell added that watching a 25-minute surgery that changes a child's life is “mind-blowing. The stigma of a cleft lip goes away. It will impact his life in so many ways.”

“Trekkers give their time, heart and financial support to make these surgical missions possible,” noted Maureen Cahill, executive director of Smile International Network. "The adventure travel trips with Smile Network are a way to combine people's love of adventure while giving back and helping people, and they get to see firsthand how their donations and hard work are changing the lives of children in Peru.”

Each trekker pays their own expenses including airfare, hotel and trek fees, and commits to raise $2,500 for their surgical mission. To date, this group of trekkers has fundraised nearly $50,000.

The Inca Trail trip is one of many Global Adventures offered by Smile Network. Volunteers of various backgrounds and professions also go on adventures to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and to Patagonia, and walk the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain, a 100-kilometer trek.

For more information on the trips, go to smilenetwork.org.

Debra Neutkens

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