After seven tumultuous years traveling the world for Operation Smile, Ellen
Agler took the past year at the Harvard School of Public Health not just to earn a master’s degree in international health, but to reflect and plan her next steps.
“It’s been a very, very good year for me at Harvard, [a time] to just reflect,” Agler said. “It’s been a whirlwind the last seven years.”
Agler, who describes working for children in the developing world as her passion, has been busy. But her busy-ness has had a lot of impact. She figures more than 5,000 children have had facial reconstruction surgery because of projects she’s worked on in 20 countries.
Agler’s whirlwind years have centered on Operation Smile, a 20-year-old relief agency that provides reconstructive surgery for children living with facial deformities in developing nations.
These deformities, including cleft lip and cleft palate, can be fixed with surgery that is unavailable in many developing nations. Agler said the ramifications of that medical scarcity are severe.
Children with facial deformities are often shunned, kept out of classrooms. For those with cleft palate and lip, there can be difficulty speaking, so the children are also poorly understood. As they grow older, they often become social outcasts and do poorer economically. In extreme cases, babies with such deformities can even be killed by family members.
Agler got involved with Operation Smile after an on-again, off-again journalism career that often left her sympathizing with the people she wrote about.
She began investigating the organization after graduating from Boise State University in Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1997 and found herself inspired by the organization’s history. It was started by a couple who participated on a surgical mission to the Philippines to repair cleft lips and palates. The need was so great that many children had to be turned away. The couple, William and Kathleen Magee, saw the need for an organization like Operation Smile and met it.
Agler said she was attracted to Operation Smile both because of its mission and because she wanted to learn from the Magees how to make a difference.
She started out at Operation Smile headquarters in Virginia, managing medical missions to underserved parts of the world. After two years, she followed that up with a stint in Colombia, as regional manager of educational programs for Central and South America. After two years there, in 2001, she moved to London as executive director of Operation Smile in the United Kingdom.
Though the organization has recruited volunteers from the United Kingdom for many years, it didn’t have an official structure there until recently. Agler remedied that, creating a central office organization, establishing charitable organization status, and doing some fundraising. While in London, Agler also managed several Operation Smile programs outside of the United Kingdom and attended the London School of Economics, earning a master’s degree in development studies.
She visited Iraq last summer with an Operation Smile team to assess the need for an Operation Smile mission there. Though they recognized a great need for Operation Smile’s services, the deteriorating security situation has precluded sending a team so far, Agler said.
Agler said her years of experience in the field combined with her academic training have made her ready for new challenges. And just in case, she also earned a certificate in humanitarian studies and field practice this year from a joint program at Tufts University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I just have a tool kit now to really take things to the next level,” Agler said.
After graduation, Agler plans to move to Southern California. She’ll continue her work with Operation Smile, perhaps organizing Asia missions. In addition, she’ll work with a new nonprofit she helped found, called the World Healing Institute in Hawaii.
The World Healing Institute, which Agler helped form while in London, handles cases of children with facial deformities severe enough that they can’t be treated in their home nations.
“Those are the kids you feel saddest about,” Agler said.
These children, Agler said, often have emotional problems related to their condition and to a lifetime of rejection and marginalization. The institute, located in Hawaii, seeks to provide more than just physical healing, it also seeks to build self-esteem and help the child view himself or herself with a positive self-image.
The institute is located on a former sugar plantation and part of its mission is to rehabilitate the plantation lands by reintroducing native Hawaiian vegetation.
“Protection of the planet and protection of the people is part of the vision of the founders,” Agler said. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with people who have just a grace about the way they want to live on the planet.”