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?