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Couple travels to Peru to help children with cleft lip and palate (copy)

EXCELSIOR — When Eloise Lundeen was born with a cleft lip and palate, her parents weren’t sure what to do.

The birth defect occurs when the upper lip and roof of the mouth (known as the palate) of a baby does not close completely when it is developing in the womb. If left untreated, it can interfere with eating and hearing, said her mother, Lindsay Lundeen.

So, Lindsay and her husband, Chad reached out to the Smile Network International, a nonprofit that helps provide reconstructive surgeries for impoverished children and adults. The organization helped the Lundeens create a plan and told them who to contact to correct the cleft lip and palate.

Today, Eloise is a happy 6-year-old student at La Academia in Chaska, reported Lindsay. Eloise first underwent surgery shortly after she was born and now has a faint line marking the place of her cleft lip. She has had nine surgeries and is about halfway though her treatment.

The Lundeens appreciated all the help the Smile Network gave them, so Chad and Lindsay decided to fly to Peru to help the nonprofit with its work for families in similar situations. The 14-day trip took place in June and the couple raised $7,000 for the Smile Network in anticipation of the trip.

Over the past six years, since Eloise was born, Lindsay estimates they have raised $20,000 for the nonprofit.

“When my daughter was born, my mom said use this to better the world,” Lindsay said, adding that they thought the Smile Network was the perfect organization to give back to. “They lead us in the right direction. We needed that, we don’t know what to do.”

Previously, Lindsay and Chad lived for 11 years in Chaska, and now live in Excelsior with Eloise and her two older siblings, Evelyn (Evie), 10, and Titus, 8. The Peru trip inspired Lindsay and Chad to embark to Guatemala to help the Smile Network in 2021.

We asked Lindsay a little bit about what she and Chad did in Peru.

Q: Why did you want to help the Smile Network?

When our daughter Eloise was born with a unilateral complete cleft lip and a bilateral complete cleft palate, we really felt like we navigated that journey on our own until we connected with the Smile Network. They not only steered us in the right direction, but they checked in on us, loved us and supported us through it.

Chad and I were both raised to be servants of others. All four of our parents are amazing volunteers and servant leaders. We always knew we wanted to throw ourselves into organizations we were passionate about, and it took having Eloise to connect ourselves with this charity.

Learning how much more difficult other kids’ lives are throughout the world having been born with a cleft, we knew we wanted to do everything possible to help ease their life in Eloise’s honor.

Q: What were some of the things you did for the Smile Network in Peru?

We mostly served as parent liaisons. As parents of a child born with a cleft, it seemed the most natural fit.

We sat with and comforted families, many of whom had never even been to a hospital before. We were also able to observe three cleft lip surgeries in the OR, shared stories of our daughter while learning about their child (thank God for Google translate) and hugged them while they nervously waited.

Q: Besides helping out with the Smile Network, what else did you do in Peru?

The four-day hike through the Andes mountains to Machu Picchu was a very amazing adventure. Although we like to relax on the beach, we both seem to have found a bit of a niche with adventure travel.

We spent several days in Cusco hiking to two other ancient ruins, explored many Peruvian markets, ate amazing food and then spent several days in Lima where we visited the ocean, did more shopping and even renewed our wedding vows on our 11-year anniversary!

Q: Your daughter had a cleft lip. What is some advice you have for parents who find out their child has cleft lip?

It’s going to be OK. Eloise’s cleft lip and palate is what makes her unique and special.

When we found out, I can assure you that was not our initial feeling. There were some dark, scary days and many nervous, sleepless nights. She’s now had nine surgeries and is about halfway done.

While the surgeries never get any easier, we do notice she gets stronger each time. Kids born with unique characteristics are cut from a different cloth as other kids. It’s what will be their super power as adults.

Part of Eloise’s story will always be the legacy of people we have helped through Smile Network in her honor. How cool is it to say you are 6 and you’ve already helped change many, many people’s lives just by being born the way you were born and bringing awareness to this cause?

Q: How can people join the Smile Network?

What I thought was cool about this trip was the number of people who joined us with no connections to people with clefts, but wanted to be the good.

Connecting with other servant leaders was the very best part they are always looking for volunteers to help with their store or take the leap and do an adventure travel mission like we did.

We are excited to go to Guatemala in two years for our next mission with them. You won’t regret it. It’s good for the heart and soul!