It’s been 10 years of Kim Valentini improving the lives and faces of some of the world’s poorest children through Smile Network International.
On April 20, the founder of Smile Network and its benefactors are celebrating “10 years, 24 surgical sites, 50 missions, 2,500 smiles,” according to the invitation for the gala being held at Aria. Actually, the plastic surgeons and volunteers have surgically repaired more than 2,500.
I have always been moved by the stories she tells about these missions and marveled at how she can do it without descending into a puddle of tears every time. “You run on adrenaline, sustained by the outcome of the work,” she said. “It changes lives. What could be more powerful than that?”
I talked to Valentini about this work, which called to her while she was climbing the corporate ladder and continues to drive her. We also discussed an unpleasant 1994 incident that brought her name into the news when former NBA and Timberwolves problem child Isaiah Rider, nicknamed J.R., kicked her. Valentini was the GM of a restaurant where Rider had arrived late to sign autographs for families with children. When she was unable to reason with the NBA player and bring their private conversation to a satisfactory end, according to court papers, she placed her hand on J.R.’s elbow and said, “I want you to go. We’re not getting anywhere with this.” At that point Rider kicked Valentini, who had just returned to work after a curtailed maternity leave. A witness called the kick forceful and reported seeing Valentini fly across the hall into a wall. The matter was settled out of court, and the details of the settlement were never disclosed.
Q Why did you give up high-profile corporate jobs at Mall of America and Rainforest Café to start Smile Network?
A I was in my 40s. I was looking to do something different with my life, something that brought more meaning to my life. Thrilling. I had climbed the corporate ladder. It just wasn’t fulfilling to me anymore.
Q Your work involves moving medical teams into and out of remote parts of the planet. What’s been the scariest incident when you’ve gone to these Third World countries?
A The common one that people experience when they go to a foreign country and don’t speak the language and you’re not familiar with the territory: Getting in a taxi. I still come home from trips and get in a cab in Minneapolis and I have to give them all the directions to get to my home, and they’re working in the city. So it’s always kind of a frightening deal. I think there have been a lot of experiences that I never would share with my family because they bordered on being in dangerous situations. I think of one time climbing a mountain road. I was with the designer Billy Beeson and [sales and marketing guy] Rik Lalim. We were going in search of one of the kids we operated on years earlier. It was the rainy season in Mexico, and we were going up a mountain side on mud roads with no guard rails. No pavement whatsoever. We were three or four feet from the edge of the mountain. The whole time I just kept thinking we’ve got to be traversing this on the wings of angels, because there is no way we can make this up and back without going on faith.
Q You have crossed paths with many dignitaries and celebrities. Do you have a favorite story?
A One of my favorites was Russell Crowe. I’ve been associated with the estate of John Lennon and Yoko Ono for a long time. We have toured the United States doing art exhibits to benefit different children’s organizations. Back when Russell Crowe was filming “The Insider” at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, I had no clue who Russell Crowe was. He walked into the room and there was this big fuss. I was the only woman working so I got propped up to talk to Russell. Long story short, the film crew was back at the bar that night at the hotel. I’m sitting at a bar with Russell Crowe and he was flirting. Just one of those dicier stories that I really can’t tell on film. As I am going down this path I am thinking, I just put myself in a corner here. Yeah, one of the most interesting guys I’ve ever met, Russell Crowe. We’ll leave it at that.
Q You guys are kind of roughin’ it when you go on these missions, right?
A Yeah. We’ve got some of the most prestigious plastic surgeons in the world and some of the roughest Third World conditions that you can imagine.
Q How many days have you gone without showering or bathing?
A My hair is naturally curly, frizzy. It’s blown out right now. I go in once a week to have my hair blown out by Jason Deavalon. I can go up to, if I have to, two weeks without doing a thing to my hair. It doesn’t change. The longest I’ve gone without washing my hair, I can’t believe I’m telling you this, is probably 17 or 18 days. Jason will say only [you] and your hairdresser know. Showering up on the Inca Trail, probably five or six days without showering. But everyone else was in the same boat so it didn’t matter.
Q Have any of these kids your organization has helped expressed an interest in being doctors?
A We are kind of seeing the first generation start. The organization is 10 years old, the kids were 2, 3, 5 years old when we first started to operate. Now they are young teenagers. These are kids who are really the poorest of the poor in developing countries. We went back and found Sergio, our poster boy for 10 years, and at 18 we asked him what his hopes and dreams were. He wanted to become a musician. That’s a high aspiration for these kids. Most of them will probably never be gainfully employed beyond being field workers and jobs of that nature. So nobody that I know of [has expressed interest in] the medical field. I would like to think that as they mature, they will pay it forward and do something good for somebody else.
Q What drives you to keep doing this?
A It’s really personal. Growing up as a kid, my parents were divorced at a young age in a community that was very Catholic and divorce wasn’t a common occurrence. My family circumstance was such that I felt like I was one of “those kids.” I grew up with this inferiority complex. It translates to the work of these kids. These kids don’t fit in the mainstream of everyday life, and when their head hits the pillow, every night I know they don’t feel intact and whole as human beings. It resonates really deep inside of me. Knowing that we can change a life with so little money and in such a short space of time, it’s adrenaline. Every time you see it you want to do more.
Q Which place could you return to over and over again because it puts a smile on your heart?
A My favorite place to travel is always the most recent place I’ve been. But, Africa, Kenya. Out of all the places I’ve been — I think in the last 10 years I have 144 passport stamps — Kenya was probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been on so many different levels.
Q When you hear about professional athletes behaving poorly, does it take you back to that incident with former Timberwolves player Isaiah Rider?
A Yeah. I had just had my son Gino. I was a couple of days back from my maternity leave; I didn’t have a long maternity leave. It was really one of those examples of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was on the receiving end of his foot. He could have crippled me. I was seriously injured. That was despicable athlete behavior — human being behavior.
Q Does it ever trouble you that your husband, attorney David Valentini, is in the business of helping athletes with their troubles away from their competitive arenas?
A I think it’s challenging being a professional athlete. If I go back to my experience with Isaiah Rider, I think as despicable as his behavior was, the behavior of many of the people [who] surrounded Isaiah was more despicable. How people made excuses for him and people came in and pled his case and positioned him as the victim. I think that athletes are so overly glorified. Young men who make a lot of money at a young age, I don’t think that they’re equipped oftentimes to deal with the reality of the fame and the wealth.
Q You and David are. … You’re not wearing your wedding band. I hear he wants to stay married and you don’t?
A Who’d you hear that from? [She smiled.] David is my best friend. It’s been challenging for both of us. I think that the future is undetermined. We each have a journey, and I’m not sure where that journey ends up. At this point it’s in limbo.
Q We have to be careful when bragging about kids, but you have raised one of the most exceptional human beings. I like Gino, too, don’t get me wrong. But what do you think Isabella is going to end up doing?
A Anything she wants to do. She is at 5 feet tall, an amazing powerful package of a little woman. She is, you know, you’ve been talking to her since she was a little girl, beautiful, articulate, brilliant.
Q She’s always been smarter than I am.
A She’s the smartest person I know. She kind of came out of the womb about 35 years old. Always been this little thing with big ideas and big concepts. Bigger than her ideas and her concepts is her heart. I am really proud of her — proud of both of my kids.
Q What’s next for Kim Valentini?
A A lot of the transitions of the last couple of years, you know, I’ve gone through some personal struggles. I kind of thought I would pass through this life and the final chapter would be Smile Network. That I would spend the last 50 years of my life doing surgical mission work around the world. Throughout some of the personal struggles the last couple of years, perhaps more of an authentic me has emerged, and part of this is when your heart is broken wide open it gives the authentic you the opportunity for the roots to grow into those cracks. What’s evolving is a speaking career. I have been contracted to speak to a number of groups, and I love an audience. Plus I think it’s travel, and I love the international nature of the work I do. But I think I would like to pursue a speaking career. [SNI] is like a baby to me. I could never leave it. I have an amazing staff of women, a great board of directors and donors.
Interviews are edited. C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.”