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Kupchella in Peru: Prior Lake's Slater a real-life children's hero

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I want to tell you the story of a real Minnesota "hero" I’ve come to know here in Peru this week on a trek and surgical mission trip sponsored by Smile Network International.

Jim Slater is a 52-year-old real estate agent from Prior Lake.

He’s a hero because he’s a regular guy who has figured out a way to make a profound difference in the lives of others at extraordinary scale.

It started with Jim coming upon a TV documentary – produced by Jason Davis in Minneapolis – about the work of Smile Network International. “It really brought tears to my eyes,” Jim told me. He said he was inspired by the way “Smile” was repairing cleft lips and palates in children all over the world – for as little as $500 per surgery, and in just 45 minutes. Jim saw it as a small investment in a smile with profound impact on children.

So this is what he did: He decided he would incorporate the mission of Smile into his life’s work, which is all about selling lakeshore property in Minnesota.

His plan: For every closing he could achieve, he’d donate "one smile" in the name of the buyer and "one smile" in the name of the seller in each transaction. It would cost him $1,000 per closing.

And the way he does the closings tends to result in more money for the cause. He brings a giant coffee-table book with him to the closing – rich with the landscapes of the places in which Smile is working, and featuring some of the stories of the more than 2,500 children Smile has helped along the way.

He shows the before-and-after pictures. And he explains that with this transaction – on this day – the people buying and selling this particular house are each changing one life – forever.

“I used to buy them a grill,” he told me, a significant "thank you" for doing business, “but today ... we’re going to change lives!”

“And you know what happens?” he asked. Often, at these closings, “The buyer, the seller, the other agent have all written out a check to take care of one more child.”

For Jim, it’s been an extraordinary mission.

Having recently sold a nearly $2 million dollar home, he upped his own ante. He said, “With this transaction today, I’m going to take care of 10 of these surgeries, five in the name of the buyer, five in the name of the seller.” It was a $5,000 donation. The buyer’s agent stepped up to match him. And the seller wrote out a check for one more. Twenty-one children will be taken care of as a result of that one Minnesota real estate transaction.

Jim has already been recognized by Smile with its highest award, naming him a “Champion of Hope” at a gala last spring, but I suspect that honor will pale in comparison to what will be going through Jim’s mind later this week, in Lima, Peru, when he will see the practical effect of what he’s done with each of 75 children returned to their mother after surgery.

Don’t get me wrong – it takes the work of a real village to do what Smile does here (doctors, nurses, 25 volunteers at this mission site alone, plus a super-dedicated staff and thousands of donors over the years).

Still, it can truly be said the $38,000 Jim brought to the table this week is enough to fund every one of the 75 life-altering surgeries scheduled here.

That’s a hero – by any measure.

Rick Kupchella, an Emmy-winning veteran journalist, has donated his time and money to Smile Network for several years. He joined the board shortly after founding BringMeTheNews in 2009 and now serves as Chairman of that board. Kupchella is trekking in Peru this week as part of his work with the organization.

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