Alumna of the Year, Elizabeth McLellan ’69

November 22, 2019
Elizabeth McLellan of Partners for World Health accepts her Alumna of the Year award during Alumni Weekend
Elizabeth McLellan ’69 accepting her Alumna of the Year award

Elizabeth McLellan ’69 Receives Alumna of the Year Award

During our Alumni Weekend festivities Alumni Board President, Courtney Walsh ’89 presented Elizabeth McLellan ’69 with the Alumna of the Year Award for her work with Partners for World Health, the medical supply non-profit she founded.

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow”

These are the words Elizabeth McLellan chose for her yearbook quote in 1969.  They are also words that describe the early determination and resilience that, today, continue to guide Elizabeth and her humanitarian work … beginning, first, as a nurse in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and, since 2007, as the founder and president of Partners for World Health, a Maine-based, non-profit medical mission, and medical supply recycling effort that serves vulnerable populations, both at home and abroad.

As Elizabeth herself has told the story when she first arrived at Gould Academy in the fall of 1967, she was homesick.  Leaving her family—and everything familiar—at home in Camden suddenly seemed like a huge mistake. In tears, she called her parents from the payphone in Gehring Hall and begged to be picked up. 

But her mother immediately realized what was going on and wisely responded with a non-negotiable: The year’s tuition had been paid and there were no refunds. Elizabeth had made a commitment and she would have to find a way to fulfill it.

Elizabeth McLellan at Partners for World Health sorting through medical supplies
Elizabeth sorting through donated medical supplies at Partners for World Health

Elizabeth did find a way. And “finding a way” has become a guiding principle in her life, even against what many would call monumental odds.

Starting in 2007—using her Portland home for storage—Elizabeth gained permission from Maine Medical Center to start collecting unused medical supplies. She had recently returned from working overseas; in Pakistan she had seen how little medical professionals had to work with, even sometimes reweaving the threads of used gauze bandages.

Elizabeth did find a way. And “finding a way” has become a guiding principle in her life, even against what many would call monumental odds.

She found the disparity of abundance in the U.S., on the one hand, and scarcity in Asia on the other, deeply troubling. But it was a problem she became determined to do something about.

After two years, continually reclaiming unused supplies from Maine Med (which would have been destroyed) Elizabeth couldn’t squeeze in even one more band-aid into her house. Every inch, from the attic to the basement, was filled to the max.

Elizabeth and Courtney Walsh after the ceremony
Elizabeth with Alumni Board President, Courtney Walsh ’89 post-ceremony

She found a warehouse to rent until one was eventually donated. The supplies still poured in and she trained volunteers to sort and pack them into shipping containers. She made connections with countries that needed the supplies. She raised funds. She recruited medical teams. She gave speeches about these efforts. Bit by bit, occasionally leap by leap, she found a way, always focusing on the sunshine, rejecting the shadows, moving forward every day.

Today, Partners for World Health distributes everything from bandages and crutches to operating tables, EKG, and X-ray machines.  In 2018 alone, the organization delivered an estimated 250,000 pounds of equipment and conducted five overseas medical missions, sending teams of medical staff to focus, primarily, on the health needs of women and children.

To date, more than 14 countries have received assistance, including populations in the United States, Cambodia, Senegal, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Syrian refugees in Turkey. Upcoming missions in 2019 and 2020 are slated for Bangladesh, Liberia, Uganda, Malawi, Ethopia, and South Sudan.

Elizabeth McLellan of Partners for World Health on a medical mission to Senegal
Elizabeth on a medical mission in Senegal

Certainly, Elizabeth is not in this for the awards. Nonetheless, the recognition and accolades are impressive.  They include:

  • the Hanley Center Leadership and Humanitarian Relief Award;
  • the Red Cross of Maine’s Real Hero Award;
  • the Maine State Governor’s Award for Outstanding Nonprofit Volunteer Program;
  • the Northeastern University Social Impact Award;
  • The University of New England’s Deborah Morton Award

In 2015, the GAzette profiled her and the efforts of Partners for World Health. In December 2017, Ozy.com—an online international news magazine—named Elizabeth a Rising Star; “Oprah Magazine” recognized her as a Health Hero in its April 2019 issue. In July 2019, Maine Magazine hailed Elizabeth as one of Maine’s 50 most notable leaders.

-Kim Siebert ’73

Elizabeth poses with the husky
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