When Isabelle Fox joined a mission sponsored by international pediatric surgery nonprofit Mending Kids to Luoyang, China, in 2011 as a nonmedical volunteer, she assumed it would be a one-off experience. If nothing else, it would be something to post on Facebook.
During the mission, then-filmmaker Fox documented a team of surgeons performing operations on orphan children with colorectal conditions that prevented them from being adopted. Fox adopted her daughter, Makena, from China in 2006 and had hoped to gain insight into what the first few months of her life were like.
When it was all over, Fox found herself in a Starbucks in Beijing, openly sobbing.
“It changed my life,” Fox said. “It gave my storytelling meaning.”
Forty missions and several professional positions with Mending Kids later, Fox stepped up last month as its executive director.
Previously heading global outreach for the Glendale-based organization, which used to be based in Burbank until last April, Fox said she’s “stepping out of the trenches” to focus on development, fundraising and making sure its existing programs are sustainable.
Typically, the organization plans to return to the same area for at least five years in a row to perform surgeries — and train local staff to perform more complex surgeries — so that the impact isn’t just temporary, she said.
It’s been a whirlwind transition. Since taking over from former executive director Chris Johnson, “I’ve been in a state of frazzle because I’ve had to go from 0 to 60,” Fox said.
Just around the corner, on Feb. 21, is Mending Kids’ seventh annual gala, which Fox described as the organization’s most important event because of its critical fundraising function. Originally scheduled for Nov. 17, the event was moved because some staff and donors were affected by the wildfires — including Fox, who lives in Malibu.
Then there are five medical missions to plan: Peru in April, Tanzania in May, Armenia in June, and to-be-determined trips to the East and West coasts of the United States.
To some degree, Fox’s experience has been like going on one of the missions: Part of the process is planning for the unexpected. Sometimes it’s difficult getting through customs to far-flung countries. Sometimes patients don’t show up for appointments and don’t have a cellphone so they can be reached. Sometimes patients pass away before the medical team arrives.
“Sometimes it’s quite discouraging, but at the same time we’re conditioned to just have to roll with it,” Fox said. “That’s how I’m approaching this [job], preparing the best I can and adapting accordingly.”