It is a tenet of the self-help faith: Follow your passion, and it will lead you down the road to professional success, personal fulfillment and financial reward. The alumni profiled in this issue turn this self-help cliché on its head. They have followed their passions, yes, but down an alternate route, applying their talents to humanitarian work that helps those in greater need. Their love for what they do motivates and energizes them through the challenges they face on the way.
When Dr. O. Gordon Robinson, an established plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Birmingham, Ala., saw his 50th birthday on the horizon, he started a to-do list.
“One of the things I wrote down was ‘plastic surgery in the Third World,’” says Robinson, who specializes in pediatric burn treatment and cleft lip and palate surgery. He signed up with the Christian Medical Society, which sent him on several trips to Coyoles, Honduras, a remote, impoverished town where the Dole Food Co. (then known as Standard Fruit) runs a 17,000-acre banana farm.
Robinson fell in love with Coyoles. No other medical aid organizations had a presence there. There was a tiny hospital—not much more than a clinic compared to what might be found in the United States—and a big need. After his two-year arrangement with the medical society ended, Robinson decided to start his own small operation, so he began looking for a site.
“I flew all around the Caribbean in my Cessna looking for a place,” Robinson says. “I went to several, but I always ended up back in this little village. I think you bloom where you’re planted, and that’s where we got planted.”
Robinson’s work in Coyoles has continued to bloom for nearly 30 years. He takes a team two or three times a year for about 10 days per trip. When he started, the teams were small: Robinson; his wife, Kitty; a nurse and another doctor. Now he takes up to 12 people, including several nurses and doctors. He estimates they’ve performed more than 4,000 surgeries, mostly on children.
“Now we average about 80 general anesthesias a trip, and about 30 cleft palate surgeries,” Robinson says.
“We take care of a lot of burns and cuts from machete fights, and we do a lot of hand surgery. They cook on charcoal clay stoves, and the children have no supervision whatsoever, and they get burned.”
Robinson’s team also arranges a clinic day during the trip when as many as 300 people come for general-practice care. The patients often receive supplies along with their medical treatment. “We give them toothbrushes, toothpaste. We had a little boy—he and his mother walked for about six hours to reach us. We fixed his eye and gave him shoes.”
In short, when Robinson sees a need, he acts to fill it. In 1981 he set up a private foundation to solicit medical supplies, equipment and shipping services for his Coyoles work. In the early 1990s, using mostly their own money, the Robinsons built and equipped a surgical addition to the small Coyoles hospital for two operating rooms and a recovery room. When Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998, Robinson rounded up planes, including two C-130s through one of Alabama’s U.S. senators, to carry 1 million pounds of food and supplies and two airplane loads of medicine to the area.
“In Honduras we ran into a Canadian MASH unit with two helicopters and no medicine, so we hooked up with them,” Robinson recalls. “And we went to two villages a day that were wiped out in the hurricane.”
Now in his late 70s, Robinson thinks about retiring, but it’s not going so well. He made an attempt five years ago, leaving Birmingham to live southeast of the city on a spread near Alexander City, but he’s back to a four-day work week as a cosmetic surgeon. In September he took another team to Coyoles. Nevertheless, Robinson eventually plans to hand over his Coyoles operations to doctors from the University of Alabama, while staying involved on the administrative side.
In the meantime, what about the other items on his decades-old to-do list?
“You know, I can’t remember the other nine,” Robinson says, and he bursts out laughing.
Find out more: www.therobinsonfoundation.com
Jill Albert was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when her two children were still in elementary school.
“Her biggest fear was that they would forget her,” says Jon Albert, her husband. “For parents facing late-stage cancer, there’s tremendous dread, tremendous guilt. You can take drugs to mask the physical pain, but you dread missing the milestones.”
Jill died in November 2006, two weeks after sharing with her family the kickoff celebration for the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, founded by Jon to help families like theirs create memories that would outlast cancer. Her son was 13 years old, and her daughter was 11.
The Atlanta-based foundation arranges for families battling late-stage cancer to go on weeklong vacations—the foundation calls them WOW! Experiences®—designed to help them escape the day-to-day and focus on enjoying each other. Many families travel out of town for this week, but those who need to stay close to home, typically for medical reasons, receive the same pampering, with special activities, hotels, transportation and meals provided. All participating families are referred to Jack & Jill by an oncologists’ network that Jon continues to expand.
The week’s goal is twofold: to allow the nuclear family some protected time together, and to help the children cope with the scary reality they face.
“It’s sad and cruel when a child must watch a parent deteriorate and die,” Jon says. “When cancer strikes, the focus is on the patient. Nothing else is ever the same. The vacations, the weekends, the holidays aren’t the same. And as much as a 9-year-old can understand, it’s hard to accept that you can’t be a normal kid. So we focus on the children.”
This, Jon says, helps the parents, too. “When you get to late-stage cancer, you don’t give up. My wife was parasailing four months before she died. You want to be there for your kids.”
Jon’s idea for the foundation was informed by conversations he had with others in his family’s situation.
“When you’re going through treatment with your wife, she’s in and out of chemo, in and out of radiation. You meet other parents,” Jon says. “Despite advances in research, thousands of parents in their 20s and 30s die every year from cancer.”
Jon approached his idea with deliberate skepticism.
“I played devil’s advocate in the oncology community, with families and doctors,” Jon explains. “I said, ‘I’m not going to save anyone’s life. There are some people out there who don’t have enough money to drive their car to chemo or to put food on the table. There are more pressing concerns.’ But everybody said, ‘You’ve got to do this.’”
Establishing the foundation allowed Jon to redirect the skills he had learned as a successful business and marketing executive toward a project deeply connected to his life and family. When he explains the foundation’s operations and the hard work involved, his voice rushes with energy.
“It is exceptionally rewarding,” says Jon, who left the private sector when his wife’s condition became critical. “And it has given my two children an incredible amount of solace, a little bit of meaning behind what happened to Mommy.”
Find out more: www.jajf.org
Jeremy Barnicle wants your attention.
He directs communications for Mercy Corps, an aid and development organization that operates in more than 35 war-torn and impoverished countries. This work demands resources. Mercy Corps’ budget tops $225 million a year, and it employs more than 3,700 people worldwide. Through his outreach, Barnicle helps bring in the money that makes its work possible.
“I spend most of my time thinking about how to connect with and mobilize Americans,” Barnicle says. “What are Americans doing with their time? What moves them? How can we mobilize this into social change?”
Barnicle grew up in a family that emphasizes public service. His father worked for the government, and Barnicle spent his teen years steeped in the political culture of Washington, D.C. At Vanderbilt he explored the three interests that inspire his professional life: politics, communications and foreign affairs. He wrote for The Vanderbilt Hustler, majored in public policy and traveled abroad. As a volunteer with Alternative Spring Break in Guatemala, he saw severe poverty up close for the first time.
Barnicle worked for a political campaign after graduation and then decided to join the Peace Corps, which sent him to Hungary to teach English.
“While I was there I worked in a refugee camp in southern Hungary for Bosnian war refugees,” he says. “I had the opportunity to work with and get to know people who were fresh out of the war zone. That was incredibly powerful to me.”
After the Peace Corps, Barnicle continued to pursue a career at the nexus of politics, foreign affairs and the media. He worked for a U.S. congressman, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He eventually made his way to the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton.
In his work for Mercy Corps, Barnicle has stayed on the move. He has traveled to hot spots all over the globe—Gaza, Darfur, Burma and Afghanistan, to name a few—collecting stories to share with Americans back home.
“One thing I concluded from all these trips: There actually is a universal humanity,” he says. “People are way more alike than they are different. They want a livelihood, work, safety for their kids, prospects for their kids. In war zones people still laugh and get married and do all sorts of things.”
He has been floored by the generosity of people with little of their own.
“In Darfur, in ’05, I was at a displaced-persons camp during Ramadan,” Barnicle remembers. “I was walking around talking to people, and I went into one hut where there was a mother with her children. I asked her about Ramadan. I asked why she was fasting, and she said, with a straight face: ‘So we understand what it’s like to be poor.’ I found that very powerful. She was poor, facing unimaginable difficulty, and she was still thinking generously.
“A small sacrifice from us can have a huge benefit for people in the developing world. In Niger, $150 would give supplemental feeding and medical care to 10 mothers and their kids for six months,” Barnicle says. “I don’t want to preach or scold people about not doing enough. I think if people understood the impact they could have, they’d do it. My job is to help them understand.”
Find out more: www.mercycorps.org
When she was a teenager, Rebekah Naylor realized the two great loves of her life: her Christian faith and medicine. She devoted herself to both, growing up to become a dedicated surgeon and missionary in Bangalore, India.
During her 30 years at Bangalore Baptist Hospital, Naylor treated thousands of patients, served as an administrator, established a nursing school that now bears her name, and helped to train the Indian doctors and administrators who would become the hospital’s next generation of leadership. She combined this medical service with her missionary calling, using prayer, teaching and music to promote her faith with patients, workers, and the community beyond the hospital’s walls.
“I was there first and foremost as a missionary, and I was there to share my faith in Jesus Christ and to show, through medical care, the love God has for them,” Naylor says. “There is no conflict between imperatives. They go hand in hand.”
Bangalore Baptist treats people of all faiths and means. The vast majority of its patients are Hindu. “There were many people who didn’t want to listen to a Christian message, and we didn’t force anyone to listen,” Naylor says. “It was up to them.”
Naylor pursued her career when female doctors were still unusual.
“At Vanderbilt there were seven women in my class—seven out of 48—which was unheard of,” Naylor says. Still rarer were female surgeons.
“During the summer between third and fourth year, I worked in a rural mission hospital in Thailand, and the surgeon let me help in the operating room,” Naylor says. She loved it and decided to train in surgery. “The internal medicine folks and the surgeons tried to convince me otherwise. They kept telling me, ‘Women don’t do this.’ They said you can’t have a family and be a surgeon.”
Naylor’s persistence eventually won her support. She became the first woman to join the surgery program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. “I was the only woman while I was there, and for five years afterward,” she says.
Today Naylor is on the surgery faculty at UT Southwestern, having moved back to the United States in 2002 to care for her mother. Among her other activities, she mentors students interested in international health; this year an elective course she set up will send 21 students to work at Bangalore Baptist Hospital.
Naylor’s tenacity served her well in India, too, where she faced daunting professional and personal challenges.
“India itself, and certainly the people with whom I interacted, had a profound effect on my life. I don’t know how to really describe that. I’m not sure I have readjusted [to life in the United States] even yet,” says Naylor, who is pictured on the cover of her recently published biography in a bright pink sari. “There were hard times. A lot of people say, ‘You went there and gave up all these things.’ But for me it was a privilege. I felt tremendous joy.”
Find out more: The biography Rebekah Ann Naylor, M.D.: Missionary Surgeon in Changing Times, written by Camille Lee Hornbeck and published by Hannibal Books, is available online from Amazon.com and other retailers.
It is difficult to imagine Zac Hood, the exuberant founder of Sports Servants, as a dispirited, disappointed man. Yet that was his state of mind five years ago.
Hood had dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player and had devoted years to his training. When a college injury put an end to his aspirations, he returned to his native Nashville, enrolled as a junior at Vanderbilt University, and went through the motions of being a student with his whole life ahead of him.
“I was a washed-up tennis player at that point, and bitter about it,” says Hood, now 26. “My senior year I had a spring break and free time—playing tennis during my first few years of college, I had never had much free time—and through a series of conversations with friends, I got hooked up with a guy who was going to Belize. I didn’t know anything about Belize.”
Hood signed up for the mission trip, arranged by two campus ministries unaffiliated with Vanderbilt. The students were going to help build an addition to a school in a place called Corozal. Hood anticipated a “cookie-cutter mission trip.”
The week transformed his life.
“Every afternoon we would go to do vacation Bible school, and we would play soccer with the kids in this wide-open field for an hour,” Hood says. “When the kids heard our bus, they would come running out of their homes—a couple hundred kids in a couple of minutes.
“I began to realize the power of sports in my life, the way it shaped my character growing up. I saw that these opportunities weren’t available to these kids. I was naïve, and experiencing culture shock, but I put down my shovel while I was digging a ditch and had this vision of starting a basic sports program, and using it to help nurture and guide these kids in a way that I’d experienced.
“I went home from that week fully alive. I’d heard that you come back [from a mission trip] with a high, and then it slowly dissolves and you’re back to normal. But for me it only increased.”
After graduation from Vanderbilt, Hood took a full-time job at his high-school alma mater, Montgomery Bell Academy, working in alumni relations and coaching tennis. In his free time he created Sports Servants, a nonprofit that would bring organized sports programs to children in Belize. It launched its summer soccer camp in 2006.
“I really had no idea what I was getting into, being the CEO of a nonprofit, all the different hats and responsibilities,” Hood remembers. “For the first two years, it consumed all my hours outside work. It was my pulse, my heartbeat.”
Friends, colleagues and mentors, such as Mac Kelton, director of the nonprofit Belize Project, were his first co-conspirators, but word spread. Hood says 60 to 70 volunteers are now on board. Many are Vanderbilt students.
“It’s been quite a journey, a lot of hard work, a lot of people giving of their time,” he says with gratitude.
This year Hood cut back his MBA hours and became Sports Servants’ first paid staffer, drawing a part-time salary.
“We’re looking to start eight to 10 school programs this fall for about 2,000 kids, versus 200 to 400 kids during the summers,” he says. In the long term Hood envisions expanding Sports Servants throughout Belize and into other countries, turning programs over to local leaders as they become sustainable.
Asked how he would advise peers interested in public service, Hood replies, “Jump in and serve something that really draws you. You have to be alive in what you’re doing.”
Find out more: www.sportsservants.org
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Dr. O. Gordon Robinson by STEVE WOOD; Jon Albert by JENNY MANDEVILLE and BYRON E. SMALL/ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE; Jeremy Barnicle by JEROME HART; Dr. Rebekah Naylor by DAVID GRESHAM; Zac Hood by JOHN RUSSELL
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