Roma Downey: Philanthropic Work ‘Gives Meaning to Celebrity for Me’

When much is given, much is expected. That has been Roma Downey’s guiding principle in her approach to charitable and philanthropic endeavors.

Downey has been an ambassador for the Virginia-based nonprofit Operation Smile for 20 years. The group’s focus is providing medical help for children suffering from cleft lips and palates, particularly in impoverished countries where routine surgeries can correct the facial deformities that are out of reach for many familes.

Downey became aware of Operation Smile when the group’s work figured in an episode of “Touched by an Angel.” She got friendly with Bill and Kathy Magee, a plastic surgeon and nurse, respectively, who founded the organization in 1982.

Downey filmed an infomercial-style promotional video for Operation Smile years ago. She’s surprised at how often she still finds it running at all hours of the day.

“If you can’t sleep one night and you’re channel surfing you might come across me in the jungle,” she jokes. But in all seriousness, she is proud to be associated with an organization that has improved the lives of thousands of children. “I’ve seen many little miracles occur and many lives changed,” she says. “It’s a privilege to lend a voice to what they do.”

Her work with Operation Smile was important in helping Downey come to grips with the reality of being a celebrity after “Touched by an Angel” made her a household name and face.

Happy Faces
Operation Smiles Stats
3k Over 3,000 health professionals volunteered for Operation Smile in 2015.
15k Number of cleft palate surgeries provided by Operation Smile in 2015.
$240 Cost of cleft palate surgery

“The idea of celebrity is such a silly thing,” she says. “But if we can help get a lot of recognition and inform people that there is this need to be met — that gives meaning to celebrity for me.”

More recently, a major focus for Downey and Burnett has been the horrendous attacks on Christians in war-ravaged areas of the Middle East. ISIS and other terror groups have targeted Christian communities that have been part of the landscape in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries for centuries.

The pair’s Cradle Fund, administered with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Global Engagement, raises funds to help return Christians and other persecuted people to their homes in the Middle East. In late 2014, Burnett and Downey launched a drive to raise $25 million, seeding the effort with a $1 million donation.

To Downey, persecution based on faith of any kind is an evil that can’t be ignored.

“It’s happening on our watch,” she says. “They are in complete crisis over there. We feel the need to try to wake people up.”

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