“Few of us have the opportunity…nor stamina and resilience …to take a dream and vision and see it flourish. She has been the driver behind a program which has enabled literally thousands of women, children and humans to receive improved, dignified and compassionate health care and thousands of health professionals to receive training and mentorship which otherwise would have been near impossible. The impact of her work will live on for many years to come.”
Nancy Kelly, a 2021 recipient of the Deborah Harding Lifetime Achievement award, has had a phenomenal thirty-five year career at Health Volunteers Overseas. Nancy, who is described as the “embodiment of humility and compassion” has been Executive Director of Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) since 1986. She has been instrumental in creating many of the successful programs, especially those that aid women’s health. Under her leadership, HVO has facilitated over 11,900 volunteer assignments globally. The last five years have resulted in, on average, 3,200 health professionals receiving training and mentorship each year – benefiting innumerable women and children both directly and indirectly. What drives Nancy is her commitment and belief that everyone deserves quality health care. When asked about a specific project she is most proud of, she said, “after 35 years at HVO, I realize the time and energy that went into the creation and development of HVO has resulted in a structure that has enabled many health care professionals to meaningfully contribute their knowledge and skills overseas”.
Kelly served in the Peace Corps in South Korea from 1979-1981 as a maternal and child health care worker. Patience and the importance of listening were the two biggest lessons that Nancy learned in her time as a Peace Corps volunteer that have helped her in her career with Health Volunteers Overseas. Nancy has continued the work she did in the Peace Corps by making healthy mothers and children a cornerstone of her career at Health Volunteers Overseas. Kelly has invested in expanding HVO’s training beyond physicians to include allied health professionals, such as nurses, midwives, and rehabilitation specialists. These professions are predominantly filled by women globally and critical to ensuring health for all. One of HVO’s initial projects was supporting Bhutan’s first OB GYN residency program.. The scope of this program is immense in terms of the downstream impact on women and children in Bhutan. With the changes that 2020 has brought, there has been a vision to expand HVO into virtual programming to exponentially increase the number of female health providers supported across specialties and countries.
Nancy relates her collective work now to her time in the Peace Corps, where there was a “mutual sharing of knowledge that not only contributed to improving health care for thousands of mothers and children in many countries, but also has increased awareness and appreciation of other cultures as our volunteers and partners work and learn together”. Nancy continued her involvement and relationship with the Peace Corps and Korea by leading the Friends of Korea group for many years.
When asked how Nancy remains hopeful of a better and brighter world and not discouraged in a world of gloom, she advised to celebrate every achievement, no matter the size. “Change takes time and as long as you are making forward progress, you should feel good about what you are doing.”
Nancy strongly believes in the power of mentorship and urges women and girls of all ages to find a mentor at any stage of their life. She advocates so fiercely for mentors because she has had many mentors throughout her life and career and has reaped the benefits of support and encouragement in her personal and professional life through her mentors. Looking back at her career, Nancy credits her mentors, who were mostly women and recognizes and “appreciates the pivotal role they each had in my growth”. Her nominator's remarks speak volumes in that, “ It is a compassion, generosity, honesty and authenticity which is hard to find in this fast paced world. She celebrates and elevates the work of others and remains behind the scenes as others are recognized. She has committed to mentoring young female professionals and has opened the HVO doors to myriads of interns who she has taken personal interest in and their career aspirations.”
She encourages young girls to work with someone whose leadership skills they admire. Nancy shared her powerful philosophy which is “Learning and growing is a constant state of being. Surround yourself with people you admire and respect.” Women of Peace Corps Legacy is honored to have presented the Deborah Harding 2021 Lifetime achievement award to Nancy Kelly, whose innovation and compassion has formed the organization of Health Volunteers Overseas that we all know today.