An honor for pair who help the world's kids to smile

December 08, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

EMMITSBURG -- William and Kathleen Magee have traveled as far as the Philippines, Vietnam and China in the past decade to operate -- free -- on thousands of children with facial deformities.

Their humanitarian work will be recognized today by Dr. Magee's alma mater, Mount St. Mary's College. The couple will receive the college's Founder's Medal, an honor bestowed since 1983 upon only five others.

James N. Loughran, the college's president, called the Magees "two exceptional people." The award is given in the name of John DuBois, the college's founder and later bishop of New York.

The nonprofit group, founded by the Norfolk, Va., couple in 1982, sends teams of plastic and oral surgeons and medical staff around the world to provided free corrective facial surgery to children. Dr. Magee is a dentist and plastic surgeon, and Mrs. Magee is a nurse and clinical social worker.

"I think it's exciting being honored by the institution you graduated from," said Dr. Magee, a 1966 graduate of the Mount, where he majored in biology. "The honor we are getting represents Operation Smile and not just us as individuals. We could have never have done this work without thousands of people. We've just been given the privilege of speaking for those people."

The organization, based in Norfolk, can claim credit for correcting conditions such as cleft lip, facial tumors and other debilitating deformities in about 10,000 children.

Twenty-five missions are scheduled for 1994, including trips to Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Venezuela, the former Soviet Union and the Gaza Strip.

"These operations can make a significant change in other people's lives," Dr. Magee said. "These kids are essentially dead, hidden in shame. They have no normal life whatsoever. A one-hour operation can create a whole new life. It's exciting."

From a shoestring operation, Operation Smile has grown into an organization with some 14,000 volunteers and a $2 million annual budget. The group has organizational and fund-raising chapters in dozens of U.S. cities, including Baltimore, and 11 countries, Mrs. Magee said.

Mrs. Magee serves as the group's administrator, and Dr. Magee volunteers about 20 hours a week and travels on mission two months each year. He just returned from China, where a team of surgeons operated on 192 people in five days.

"Each time, we experience the same feelings we felt when we started in 1982," Dr. Magee said. "Emotions are very powerful and, when you touch people's emotions, you mobilize positive energy for change."

The Magees, who have five children, say they hope the recognition will inspire other Mount students to pursue humanitarian efforts.

"The more you give the more you receive," Dr. Magee said. "This is an opportunity for us to give back and to give messages to these kids who are now formulating their lives. If we encourage just a few to head on that road -- that would be wonderful."

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