It takes a big group of people to be able to make such a difference in one life.

The Minneapolis-based Smile Network has been performing miracles around the world for almost 10 years, and for the last four years, Renae Claeys, a recovery room nurse at Mayo Clinic, is one of its volunteers.

Those volunteers travel to third world countries and conduct free surgeries to repair impoverished patients' cleft lips and palates.

"I've been on four mission trips," Claeys said. "The first three were to Peru, and this last time (Nov. 7-16) was in Puebla, Mexico.

"On this past trip, we had a group of 14 volunteers — some medical, some nonmedical — from five countries (and) served 60 families. We did 60 surgeries in five days and screened over 150 patients.

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"We weren't able to meet the needs of all of the families that came to us, but we plan to go back again to serve more from the area," Claeys said. "While there, we operated on at least 15 patients a day. It's hard work — over 12 hours a day — but it was very rewarding and great to be able to see people have their lives changed for the better."

Claeys got involved with Smile Network very suddenly.

"My first mission trip my mission chose me," she said. "I'd always wanted to do a mission trip, but never knew how to get started or get involved. Then one day, an anesthesiologist I work with at Mayo who had been serving with Smile Network said they had a nurse need to back out of a mission, and they had a month to find a nurse and asked if anyone would be willing.

"So with just one month's notice, I was off to Lima, Peru," she said. "I've been addicted to wanting to serve ever since. What I've been able to commit to is one mission trip per year. It's something I'm hoping to do for as long as I can."

Claeys' most recent trip with with a reality TV star. Nicholas David, who you may remember from NBC's "The Voice," was one of the volunteers.

"It was his first experience on a mission," Claeys said. "He actually came to learn about the Smile Network through 'The Voice.' Our founder (Kim Valentini), saw 'The Voice' and found out he was originally from Minnesota, and called producers to ask if he'd be willing to sing at our gala fundraiser in Minneapolis. He said he'd be honored to, and that began his connection to Smile Network.

"They offered for him to come along on a mission, he said yes, and helped with some of the administrative things and played music for our families," Claeys said. "He has the biggest, most compassionate heart. You always wonder what these celebrities are like in real life, and he is just a fabulous person and i really enjoyed working with him."

David sang "You Are So Beautiful" to the children in Puebla — a very fitting song under the circumstances.

"It's all such a difference in the children and adults," Claeys said. "You can't imagine how much they appreciate being able to feel once again accepted in society, being able to eat properly, being able to drink properly and being able to speak properly — these things we take for granted. It's a life-changing moment in their lives."

Many other surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists from Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center have volunteered for Smile Network. For more information about the group, visit

Megan Kennedy is a longtime midday radio personality on KROC-FM. Seen & Heard highlights local people with interesting stories. Send tips to