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Smiles in paradise

How one Buffalo woman changed lives in South America

By Miriam Orr

Nestled high the Andes Mountains of Peru rests a series of citadels, dating back to at least the 15th century. With as much beauty as there is history revolving these ancient places, the Incan trails and ruins are still, to this day, a subject of speculation and study.

Despite lack of background, Macchu Picchu and other destinations within Peru remain popular vacation destinations and tourist locations, if you’re tough enough to brave treacherous mountain trails and perilous hikes. With natives that fully embrace tourists from around the world, Peru is a place of mystery and beauty. And, according to Buffalo resident Stacy Hinkemeyer, the South American paradise should make everyone’s bucket list of places to see before you die.


Getting there

It was steamy when Stacy Hinkemeyer pulled into her garage, her two granddaughters accompanying her in the backseat of her car. It had been a long day at work and battling the heat, and Stacy was still recovering from altitude changes from a 14-day trip to Peru.

Stacy is a Buffalo native, having lived most of her life in the city. Currently, she works in financing, in Minneapolis, with a company that has connections with quite a few charity organizations, including the Smile Network.

“That’s how I got my foot in the door with Smile Network to begin with,” she explains. Stacy has been involved with the organization, which is a humanitarian effort that provides “life-altering reconstructive surgery.” Most commonly known for their work in repairing cleft palates and lips, Stacy was passionate about the organization right away when she heard about it.

Stacy’s job was partnering with the Smile Network to raise money for facial-reconstruction in Peru, specifically, Lima.

Stacy stated, “I researched the Network’s founder, Kim Valentini, and found that she was such an inspiring woman. She goes into the Amazon to collect wares to raise money for these kinds of efforts, and she’s so involved with people. Her passion really inspired me to get involved with this and do something.”

However, it was Stacy’s experience with giving blood that kickstarted her passion to take the trip to Peru. Stacy shared that she was giving blood one afternoon at work, and her heart ended up going into an arrhythmia, or an abnormal rhythm. Since other members in her family had died from similar complications, Stacy was driven into treatment – thankfully, nothing serious was wrong with her heart, but she stated she did gain some pretty serious perspective.

“Having a condition like that, which has killed other members in your family is pretty harrowing,” she explained. “I got some perspective and realized that I wanted to live and do things I wouldn’t normally do. I needed to do things right now, because tomorrow isn’t ever guaranteed.”

The trip would involve not only working in a hospital atmosphere to volunteer during the process of facial-reconstructive surgery, but it also involved a trek up the Incan Trail, which is where the fundraising aspect of the trip comes into play for Stacy. So, once having signed up for her trip, Stacy started the process of training for her trek through the mountains.

With a hike of around 23 miles, the trip would calculate to around 50,000 stairs, and around 80,000 personal steps. Of course, this all takes place at a higher altitude and summits around 14,000 feet, which needs to be accounted for – so, training and exercise are a must.

Nine others would join Stacy on her trip, and together, they raised around $35,000 to provide surgeries for kids in Lima. Since each surgery equals out to around $500 a child, around 70 kids were sponsored through their trip alone.


In Peru

Stacy shared that once you land in Peru, it’s a gorgeous drive to Lima, where their hospital work would begin. She stated that the hospital volunteering aspect of the trip was the most emotional experience she’s encountered, and that it changed her perspective instantly.

“Since many of us weren’t medical professionals, a lot of what we did was sit with families and help them cope with the fact their children are in surgery. We were emotional support for them.” She continued, “I did get to sit in on one surgery, and it was truly breathtaking. To see a place, like Lima, that doesn’t even have the technology to perform blood transfusions, changing a life like that is so emotional.”

Another aspect of her trip that was truly inspirational was the fact that a medical team from the United States brought over a transfusion machine, to donate to the hospital in Lima. While Lima is by all accounts a modern city, their medical practice is not nearly as advanced as the United States. Stacy explained that blood transfusion technology was unheard of in Lima, and that the technology was greatly in need, since the leading reason of death in women between ages 18 and 34 is blood loss from child birth.

“To see people who haven’t had that technology finally receive it was a huge blessing,” Stacy shared.

Stacy was able to observe that one surgery during her time in Peru, and while grateful for “not passing out,” she explained that watching a life change and being able to be a part of it was humbling, and really gave her perspective about her own life, and those of her grandchildren and loved ones.

“The difficult part of the whole thing was the hike!” Stacy laughs as she distracts Winnie, her six-month-old granddaughter with a series of rattles and teething toys. “The altitude just kills you, if you’re not used of it – I’m recovering still. But, while on that trail, we encountered some of the most amazing people who walk it every day, carrying seventy and eighty-pound loads!”

Stacy raised $3,000 on her own for the hike, and she said the greatest takeaway from the hike was that anyone can do what they set their mind to do, all it requires is actually going out and getting it done. She stated that while on the mountain and actually hiking the Incan Trail, one really begins to realize how minute people are, and that there is a lot more to life than just the daily goings-on.

“The views are just gorgeous,” Stacy shared. “When you’re there, you realize just how small you are, and how fleeting life actually is. For these kids in Peru, these facial-reconstructions are not because of a standard of beauty – they genuinely need them to breathe and to eat and to develop as human beings. That was really a big thing to realize, since so much surgery here is for beauty standards.” She concluded, “Something like this truly changes your life – while I wouldn’t climb a mountain again on an ancient trail, I would definitely seek out the Smile Network again and see how else I can help change lives, even in a little way like hiking.” 

For more information on the Smile Network, visit



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