Daniel J Vance

Though a real estate agent the last 12 years, 52-year-old Kim Hammes of Le Sueur, Minnesota, used to be employed as a court-appointed guardian for vulnerable adults, including seniors with disabilities and group home residents with disabilities.

In a telephone interview, she said, “For example, I worked with one elderly woman who had never married, had a college degree, and had worked her entire life. As she aged, one of her neighbors befriended her and proceeded to transfer all her wealth to him. The guy even (transferred over) her car that had her electric wheelchair stored in the trunk. By the time we tracked him down, he had spent all her money.”

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In part due to having been a guardian, Hammes became passionate about helping vulnerable people with disabilities. Over the last year, she has channeled that passion into doing volunteer work for Smile Network International, a Minnesota-based organization that sends volunteer surgeons and non-medical helpers to underdeveloped countries to perform free cleft lip and palate surgeries. On its website, Smile Network International reported spending 89 percent of donations on program services.

Hammes visited Peru with Smile Network International to make a difference, she said. Her first visit occurred in July 2013, in which she and a friend paid their own way and also raised more than $20,000 to help make the surgeries cost-free for Peruvian children. The surgeons were volunteers, too.

She said, “As a non-medical volunteer on this mission, my role was to help walk the (Peruvian) families through the whole (surgical) process. Hundreds of people came for the surgeries. I helped families through the lengthy intake process, entertained children in the waiting room, carried babies into the operating room, and reported to parents how the surgery had gone. We were the liaisons between the families and the medical team.”

She added, “I’ve never seen so much gratitude in my entire life. I’m not Spanish speaking, but I didn’t have to be. You could see (the gratitude) in their eyes. There were a lot of tears of joy. For the families, this was a life-changing surgery in many ways.”

For example, a person with cleft lip or palate, throughout much of rural Peruvian culture, was considered cursed, she said. Sometimes, children with either condition were abandoned by parents or weren’t allowed into school.

In November 2014, she re-visits Peru, this time to help the surgical team maintain medical records.

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