When Serving Others Is in Your Blood

By Kristie Magee Porcaro, Chief Strategy Officer and Partnerships, Operation Smile

As I sat across the table from Antero, I remember holding my fork a little more tightly than normal. My body was tense and I was unsure where to direct my attention. Antero had noma, a disease that caused the death of the tissue around his nose and mouth. It’s a condition that is difficult and painful not only to those who experience it, but also to those who see it. Antero was only 16, and because he lacked access to the antibiotics and medical treatment that he needed in the Philippines, he had to leave his family behind and stay with our family to receive the surgical treatments he needed.

My parents, Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee, welcomed Antero into our home and cared for him like they did for me and my siblings. Even today, decades later, I often think about his strength and the infallible trust he had to have had in us as a family and in my father as his doctor and surgeon.

Antero joined our family for more than six months. In honesty, this was not a particularly exciting development for us Magee children. Antero joined us at school which felt like an enormous social undertaking to me, a preteen, and to my older siblings. I often wondered, “Was this fair?” I knew my friends weren’t regularly sharing their mom’s weekly chicken, potatoes and salad with other children needing orofacial surgery.

Antero and his family after he received surgery.

Our animated and passionate family seemed to have an unending supply of energy, compassion and generosity, and I sometimes questioned if it ever had limits. But later in life, I came to learn that these three qualities can, indeed, be limitless when you commit your life to serving others.

An Unassuming Beginning

When my parents went to the Philippines in 1981 with a group of physicians to provide free cleft lip and cleft palate surgery for children in need, they had no idea what a lasting impact it would have on them and the patients we’ve served since then.

For the first time in their lives, they witnessed firsthand the realities that many families like Antero’s faced. Families who cannot get the medical care that they desperately need aren’t focused on material things; they’re making what you and I would consider unimaginable decisions. Caretakers are choosing between feeding their family or letting hunger take hold in order to access essential medical treatment for their children. It’s clear to me now that, in childhood, I did not understand the gravity of this type of decision or the enormity of the vision my parents set out to achieve.

As my family continued to welcome patients from around the world into our home, my mother and father taught us what they were learning about humanity, hard work and the undeniable right to a repaired smile. People don’t need things; we need each other. We need to teach and inspire and help one another.

Operation Smile is Born

A team photo from one of the first medical missions in the Philippines.

By 1982, my parents officially founded Operation Smile, a nonprofit with an unending commitment to providing comprehensive care and life-changing surgery to children with cleft conditions around the world. Our house continued to serve as a haven to those who felt displaced, and we all felt called to do our part. By the time I was 10, I had earned my chance to go with my parents to Manizales, Colombia. My role there would be to educate patients and families on various health care practices like oral health, wound care for burns and nutrition. I also spent quality time with children suffering from severe burns who were just like me, other than where we were born. We laughed, shared experiences and created the strong bonds of childhood friendship.

One of the few photos that includes my parents and all my siblings together on a medical mission.

I realize now that this time in Manizales shaped the rest of my life both professionally and personally. I remember sitting on the stairs outside of the hospital, watching as our medical team packed up supplies, medications and equipment at the end of the week. As a child, this was a lot for me to process emotionally, and I began to cry. Of course, my father rushed over to see why I was upset, but I had a hard time putting my feelings into words. I was only able to ask, “What will happen to these children now that we’re leaving?”

I originally pursued a career in nursing because of my desire to help children and families. This photo was taken while I was serving as post anesthesia care unit nurse during a medical mission in Brazil 2000.

The responsibility to these children that I felt then is the same responsibility that I feel now. It is to listen, pay attention to what is unfolding around me, and ensure that they can get the medical care they deserve. It’s a privilege to sit with others in their pain, not with a goal of offering a solution, but in solidarity and with empathy. I’ve learned from being a mother myself that parents will move heaven and earth for their children, even if it means risking everything. It’s my duty to take my enamor for the strength of humanity and to share it with all who will listen. I’ve learned that, together, we can create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most.

Years after my experiences in Manizales, my siblings and I continued to support our parent’s organization. As a student, I joined the Happy Club at Norfolk Academy, raising money and local awareness for Operation Smile. The opportunity came for me to independently attend a mission in the Gaza Strip, and it was on this mission that I was exposed to how political instability and civil unrest could keep families from accessing essential medical treatment.

The children I met on this mission were indeed wise and brave beyond their years. Again, I returned with an appreciation of learning from people different than myself. This idea fascinates and fuels me.

I’ve always seen our organization as a catalyst for collaboration, we’re never afraid to learn to from our partner’s experiences and grow together.

The Foundation of Operation Smile: Trust

After building a career in development, I joined Operation Smile’s development staff 15 years ago and gained expertise in all aspects of the craft from nursing, to consulting, to major gifts, to global corporate fundraising. It was impossible to ignore that what I could give back to Operation Smile, in gratitude to all it has given me, was particularly unique. I was called to share my expertise with the organization in a way that helped others understand how powerful they can be in bettering the lives of children with cleft conditions.

My mom, sister and I entertain a patient with bubbles during the screening process at a mission last month in Morocco.

It would take all of us to accomplish the vision that my family set out to manifest back in 1982. What my mother said years ago still rang true in my heart: We need to teach and inspire one another to make big changes happen. I knew we couldn’t do that without trust.

Today, I am proud to lead an all-female team of development professionals who steward our philanthropic efforts in the U.S., and globally in support of our international foundations. I’ve had the pleasure of working with families and global corporate partners who are committed to creating meaningful changes for our world’s children, and who also involve their own children’s passion for bettering the world in our partnerships.

Here are just a few of the strong females I’m proud to work with.

I remember daily that paying attention, listening and building strong relationships means that everyone, our patients, Operation Smile, our children and our partners, win. It’s a gift each day to exercise creativity, unbridled vision and possibilities with our corporate partners to elevate the level of surgical care that’s being delivered in low- and middle-income countries.

After working hand-in-hand to elevate fundraising and branding with our foundation in Colombia, I was invited to become a member of their board of directors in 2019. The full-circle nature of this opportunity is not lost on me. I still remember being 10 years old and my infallible trust in our stellar colleagues in Manizales who were committed to caring for those children as if they were their own.

Our foundation in Colombia has done an exemplary job over the past 25 years creating a year-round care center of excellence where children born with cleft conditions can receive the highest quality of care available, free of charge. I know that when a family comes to our team in Colombia looking for help, they know that our compassionate professionals are committed to providing everything they need to give their child a chance at a happier and healthier future.

Operation Smile Colombia staff and volunteers supporting our year-round care center and medical programs.

I’ve internalized countless lessons from my parents over the years that have shaped the way I approach leadership, relationships and motherhood. Yet, above all else, I’ve learned to keep trust at the core of every relationship.

A Celebration of Powerhouse Women in Medicine: Oujda, Morocco

The level of confidence and the bonds that the organization has built globally for almost 40 years allow it to accomplish novel and incredibly inspiring things, one of which I was honored to take part in last month. For the first time in 15 years, I traveled with my mother, my sister Brigette, and her daughter Isabelle to Oujda, Morocco, where we participated in Operation Smile’s first mission conducted by an all-female team of medical volunteers.

My family celebrating with this mother as her child is returned to her arms after surgery.

There are so many influential women who have carried this organization on their shoulders and elevated the work we do around the world. Yet, of all the women I’ve met throughout my lifetime supporting Operation Smile, my mother has been my biggest inspiration. During this medical mission, surrounded by those who share her bright spark, my mother fully embraced the mission she set out to achieve 38 years ago. She has been through so many challenges and still has the same level of commitment that she had after returning from the Philippines many years ago.

A group photo of the all-female team, with my mom Kathy and the Executive Director of Operation Smile Morocco at the center.

We were able to take care of nearly 130 children during that mission. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to reflect on the experiences we’ve shared and how this has set the tone for not only the future of the organization, but the future of our world’s children. We’ve accomplished astonishing things, but I believe that we haven’t yet reached our peak.

The Road Ahead

Today, the lack of access to quality medical care is, indeed, a global crisis. A colleague of mine often says that in life, “The map is not the terrain,” and Operation Smile is living proof of this. Though we may know our goals, the road to them is not straight, flat or predictable; reaching them will require overcoming huge obstacles. We will always be there for the children and families that need us. It’s going to be hard work to climb the mountains ahead, but that’s never stopped us before.

Kristie Magee Porcaro is the Chief Strategy Officer and Partnerships at Operation Smile. Kristie leverages Operation Smile’s key donor contacts and partnerships into increased participation with the organization. Kristie and her team also cultivate new partnerships and corporate social responsibility opportunities to match donors to Operation Smile programs and initiatives. She serves as a key leadership team member and an active participant in making strategic decisions affecting Operation Smile globally. She also helps forge new relationships to build Operation Smile’s visibility, impact and financial resources. She is responsible for designing and implementing a comprehensive plan for developing key external alliances by cultivating individual and philanthropic support. Before officially coming aboard to help the organization, she worked at Community Counseling Service Fundraising (CCS) in NYC for five years. At CCS Kristie helped with campaigns with UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Pace University and Archdiocese of New York. Kristie attended Villanova University in Villanova, PA, and received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. She lives in Norfolk, VA, with her husband and three boys.

Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most. operationsmile.org