Orono family treks for a cause

By Adam Quandt
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The Rakos family during their trek on the Inca Trail in Peru. (Submitted photo)

Backpacking for four days across the Inca Trail in Peru to Machu Picchu is a feat on its own, but doing it while serving a cause is something else. However, that is exactly what one Orono family did.

The Rakos family recently returned from the adventure of a lifetime, where they trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, while raising funds and volunteering for the Minnesota-based nonprofit Smile Network International.

For Kurt and Mary Rakos and their daughters Jessica and Jenna, the trip was somewhat about celebrating a few milestones in their lives; Kurt and Mary celebrating their 25th anniversary, oldest daughter, Jessica recently graduated from nursing school and youngest Jenna graduating from Orono High School. However, the expedition was about much more than themselves.

The Rakos family has been involved with Smile Network since it was created by Kurt’s sister in 2003.

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit raises funds and organizes volunteer work to provide free surgeries to children with cleft lips or palates in various locations around the world.

“I think it’s important people understand that in the time span of 20-45 minutes and with $500, we’re able to completely change the life of a child,” Smile Network Executive Director Maureen Cahill said.

The nonprofit currently holds missions in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, India and Hate, with new sites in progress for China and the Philippines.

“Wherever there’s a need, we will go,” Cahill said. “We want to continue to help as many children as we can.”

The idea behind the programs is to pair giving back and adventure.

For the Rakos family, that adventure was a four-day hike across the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, followed by volunteer work in the medical facility where the surgeries took place.

“The whole experience is a little difficult to put into words,” Jessica said.

“Everything was a step at a time,” Kurt added. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

The family was joined on the trek by 17 trekkers, 20 Peruvian-native porters and three guides, who led them through various microclimates, across winding trails and staircases 14,000 feet up the Andes Mountains.

Mary explained that each trekker was only allowed to bring 13 pounds of gear, which included their sleeping bag, pillow and bed pad. All of your everyday essentials had to be carried by backpack.

“You don’t realize how two bottles of water can get very heavy with everything else,” Mary said. “You had to really think about what you were going to bring.”

“You really had to live up there, there wasn’t really another option,” Jenna added.

“You see people in the raw state,” Kurt said. “No showers, people are getting sick, just so much to take on.”

The Rakos family explained the difficulties they faced upon the fourth and final day of the trek, when Mary got sick.

“That was the most physically and mentally challenging day I’ve had in my entire life,” Mary said. “I just kept telling myself it’s for the kids.”

Jessica Rakos performs checks on a patient in Peru, while volunteering on a trip with Smile Network International. (Submitted photo)

Jessica said that it was on the trail where you really realized why you were doing this.

“It’s not just for you, the purpose is giving back,” Jessica said. “You’re doing this for these families that so desperately need it.”

That final hurdle made for an emotional finish to the hike for the entire family.

However, the end of the trek wasn’t the end of the experience for the Rakos family. Following their mountain expedition, the family went to work at the children’s hospital.

From organizing medical records to simply providing emotional support to the families and much more, each member of the Rakos family played a different role at the hospital.

Jenna reflected on the first day at the hospital, which is screening day for the children, and described it as “controlled chaos.”

“It’s as smooth as it’s going to be,” Jenna said. “But everything works out.”

Parents travel with their children as long as 10-12 hours from outside villages to receive help from the Smile Network volunteers at the hospital.

Despite the language barrier between most of the volunteers and the families, Mary said “even with the barrier, you were still able to communicate one-on-one with the parents.”

Even with all of the mental and physical challenges and rewards that came with conquering four days on the Inca trail, the Rakos family said the ability to change people’s lives was by far the most rewarding part of their adventure.

“It’s 20 minutes and how much it changes their life is just mind boggling,” Kurt said. “It puts into perspective how much of a difference is made in such a short time frame. That’s what’s so humbling to me.”

Those wishing to help Smile Network can get involved in a number of ways, that don’t always involve traveling the world. The Rakos family held fundraisers for years before their schedules allowed them to go on an adventure for the cause.

The nonprofit holds a variety of local events to raise funds and provide information to those interested in their programs. Their next event will be a concert with Kat Perkins on Aug. 10 at Wayzata Brew Works.

To learn more about how you can get involved with Smile Network International, visit their website at www.smilenetwork.org.