Alison Healy – Executive Director of Alliance for Smiles
Executive Director of Alliance for Smiles
The seed for Alison’s career was planted early on, when her father was Peace Corps Director in Brazil and the Congo. This was her first exposure to other cultures and the riches that come with learning new approaches to life and helping others who are less fortunate than yourself.
It wasn’t until much later that Alison got the “gotta give back” bug which led to her becoming Volunteer Director of the AIDS Walk Picnic for 30,000 people. As a result, she started searching for a more meaningful career. After selling her catering and special events business, Alison set out to sea as a deck hand and coordinator of the Soviet-American sailing exchange on board HMS Rose (in Master and Commander). While overseas, she became forever changed by the magic of cultural exchanges which occurred on board. She later founded the Pacific Rim Foundation (PRF), an international non-profit, which allowed her to recruit and host international tall ships from around the world while also working as a diplomatic liaison to embassies, naval attaches, and their ex-pat communities.
Now as CEO of Alliance for Smiles, Alison feels right at home running a nonprofit organization which is dedicated to transforming lives and to creating international friendships and understanding as a platform for peace. She is buoyed daily by the community of support surrounding Alliance for Smiles, allowing her to strategically plan for a successful future by implementing new programming and fundraising practices.
Alison was educated at Massachusetts College of Art and Design as well as Presidio and Stanford Graduate Schools. She lives in Sausalito, CA with her Mexican-born husband and son and loves to sail on the weekends. Alison is a Rotarian.
Interview with Alison Healy, CEO, Alliance for Smiles
1. Why is cleft a world-wide problem that often takes 10 operations to resolve?
Cleft lip and palate are the second most common birth anomalies in the world. Although we do not know all the reasons for cleft births, we do know that nutrition, iron, environment and genetic disposition play an important role in determining who will be born with cleft. The first operation on a cleft patient takes care of their lip or their palate, but after that there are many more steps to recovery. These can include multiple operations for bone grafting, rhinoplasty, orthodonture, dental care, as well as on-going speech therapy, all of which must continue until the facial bones have stopped growing.
2. What makes Alliance for Smiles different from other cleft organizations?
Alliance for Smiles (AfS), like all cleft organizations, orchestrates missions to other countries where we operate on cleft children’s lips and palates. However, unlike other organizations, AfS offers two other program options. AfS offers educational missions to instruct and share knowledge with medical professionals such as medical students, doctors, nursing students and nurses. Additionally, AfS has long term treatment center programs which partner local medical professionals in four disciplines with four of our team members of the same discipline. These two teams work together twice a year, with communication in between visits, so that eventually the local team will feel confident to work on their own to handle cleft patients from the first operation to the last. This sustainable programming is what makes us unique.
We also have a medical fellowship program for adults 18 years and older. This two-week program offers an unique and hands-on opportunity to observe in the operating room, learn cleft techniques, transport and hold beautiful babies, speak extensively with our medial professionals in the OR and during meals, and more.
3. How do you decide where to go operate on children?
We go wherever there is a need and a local partner which can help us with logistics and procuring the facility and patients we need. By the end of 2020, we will have been to 15 countries in our 16-year history.
4. How do you fund your missions and how can people get involved to donate or volunteer?
We fund our missions through many corporations, foundations, and private donors. We are always seeking new partners who are committed to demonstrating social responsibility – to help sustain our missions and to grow our treatment centers.
Volunteers can sign up to work in the office, at our annual gala or on missions online at allianceforsmiles.org. We take mostly medical personnel on missions, but we do have a few non-medical positions on each mission too. Because of our close ties to Rotary clubs and districts, many of our non-medical volunteers are Rotarians and are committed to the basic philosophy of Rotary which is “service above self” and “creating international bridges of understanding and goodwill”.
Donations can be made online at allianceforsmiles.org.
5. How has working with Alliance for Smiles changed your life?
I feel more purposeful having a job that is also my passion. Helping others and creating bridges to intercultural understanding which I believe are the platform for building peace, makes me get out of bed raring to go every morning. I feel that we each have a duty to give back to others and to our planet and I always try to do my part.
6. Talk to us about this year’s missions: where are you going and to which countries for the first time?
In the next year we have ten missions which is average for us. We are very excited to be adding several new countries to our list: Egypt, Honduras, Guatemala, and we are returning to the Philippines after a 10-year hiatus. Each new country we enter requires a lot of groundwork to establish the in-county contacts and to determine what needs to be adjusted for a new site and a different culture. Sometimes it can take as long as two years to plan a mission and to raise the needed funds; the average mission costs $90,000 which covers an average of 90 children’s operations.
7. What is the biggest misconception about cleft lip and palate anomalies and those who are born with it?
Understandably, most people think the problem is just what you can see, the lip. As I explained earlier, it is often up to 10 surgeries that are needed, not just one. It is a long process that requires regular follow-up and a medical team dedicated to cleft care to ensure that a child finishes care with all the support services having been involved.
In less developed countries, it is common to hear that the devil or a bad deed in a past life has caused a child to be born with cleft. This kind of thinking can be changed with education and indeed, many countries now have a better understanding of the myriad of reasons a child may be born with cleft.