Nearly four decades after Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee held Operation Smile’s first surgical program in the Philippines in 1982, the founding principles of love and leadership not only remain major pillars of the organization’s mission but also a guiding philosophy that has been passed down through generations.
For Dr. Billy Magee, the eldest son of Kathy and Bill, visiting developing countries over summer breaks and hosting Operation Smile patients at his family’s home were common experiences for him and his siblings growing up. Being surrounded by that level of generosity during his formative years had lasting effects on Billy and greatly influenced who he is as a surgeon and as a father.
Bill and Kathy brought Billy and his siblings on surgical programs to many countries throughout their childhood.
After Billy’s initial trip to the Philippines as a teenager, Bill recalls his son saying he was determined to get a medical degree, a dental degree, go into general surgery residency and then onto plastic surgical residency and fellowship.
“You’re talking about 15 to 17 years of education after high school. It almost has to be built into your subconscious, that this is what you want to do,” Bill said. “That’s not something you can just tell your kid to do. So I think for any parent, if you can place your kids in altruistic situations that will have a high emotional impact on them, then expose them to that.”
Attending surgical programs as a child left a lasting impression on Billy, Operation Smile’s current chief of research and innovation. The impression was deep enough that he jumped at the chance to take his oldest son, Liam, to a program in Rwanda as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
Liam is 14 years old, transitioning from middle school to high school, and he excels academically and enjoys playing sports. But his enthusiasm toward going to Rwanda is proof that the desire to help others is a tightly held family value.
Prior to their trip to Rwanda, Billy educated Liam on the history of Rwanda so he was prepared to witness families living in places of dire need and also able to understand how Rwanda can benefit from nonprofit organizations such as Operation Smile.
While at the program site, Liam watched his father change lives through performing cleft surgeries on patients, educating surgical residents during training sessions and sharing special moments by playing soccer with students at a nearby school.
During his time in Rwanda, Liam noticed that many patients lacked adequate long-haul transportation and had to walk long distances during their return trips back home. Attempting to make the journey a little more comfortable for patients, Liam suggested sending them home with bags of essential items, including ponchos to protect them during rainy Rwandan afternoons.
“Love and leadership start with daily acts of kindness,” Billy said. “And it’s important for me to see my child display acts of kindness with others. As his parent, I encourage it.”
Taking on these values, Liam began working on his goodie bag project once he and his dad returned home to California. Liam couldn’t wait to share his experience with his friends, who were eager to learn more about his project and recent travels to Africa.
The value of interacting with people living in low- and middle-income countries at such a young age has expanded exponentially among the Magee children and grandchildren.
Upon returning from her first trip to the Philippines, Brigette Magee started an Operation Smile student club at her high school. Today, Brigette is still heavily involved with Student Programs as the organization’s director of student strategic initiative.
“What really changed the way that we raised our kids was the opportunity that we had to bring Brigette with us on that first trip to the Philippines. There was something really special, thinking back, that, by chance, we took her with us,” Bill recalls. “We never realized the impact that would have until we saw what we saw. We had a new emotional reality that came to light, seeing people who were living in a totally different way than we had ever experienced.”
Bill reflects on what it means to be a parent: “It makes me think, ‘What is your responsibility as a parent to your children, and what will leave the biggest impact years later?’ As I reflect back as a father and think about the things that really impacted our kids, it was the gift that Kathy and I were able to give them as parents. Getting them involved with Operation Smile.
“And we’ve watched how these trips have affected every one of our kids — there’s been no doubt about it with every single one of them. Every one of them has a unique story in their minds, and we have our stories in our minds, about how Operation Smile has changed their lives.”