REALTOR® Mary Liu was born with a cleft palate and lip that required eight surgeries to correct. It was thanks to the help of several nonprofit organizations that she was able to receive the medical care she needed, she says, because her family was too poor to afford the surgeries.
“I remember what that was like, and I always said I was going to give back when I was able,” recalls Liu, a sales associate with Vanguard Properties in San Francisco. She says her real estate business has given her the opportunity to do just that.
For a while, Liu was involved in public speaking. And through her speaking engagements, she met some of the people behind an organization called Alliance for Smiles, based in San Francisco. The organization sends surgical teams all over the world to provide free cleft palate and lip surgeries to underserved children and families. Liu knew it was the right organization in which to get involved. “At first, I helped with fundraising, and I went on the medical missions as the photographer and record keeper. Now I oversee the medical missions process,” she says.
Liu says her involvement in Alliance for Smiles is a healing and life-changing endeavor. As a Chinese American, Liu’s first mission in China gave her insight into the puzzle of her own experience, providing her closure. “I have no photos of me as a child before I had my surgeries,” she says. “On my first mission to China, I was able to see what I would have looked like. I was able to be in the operating room and see the surgery. It brought everything full circle for me.”
Pivoting in a Moment of Need
When COVID-19 hit, Alliance for Smiles was no longer able to send its surgery teams around the world, but Liu wanted to make sure the organization could continue to help children anyway. Fundraising, which was overseen by Liu, continued online. Each year, the organization’s annual gala was its main fundraising effort, but it was shuttered due to the pandemic. But Liu found a way to transition the gala to an online event. For two years, the event was held online with much success, which allowed Alliance for Smiles to continue funding surgeries.
“We started training nurses and doctors in various parts of the world over Zoom,” Liu says. “That way, they could still perform the surgeries. Now we can go back to in-person missions, but we found that the Zoom trainings were really helpful, so we still do them.” The trainings, she said, prepare the local medical team in advance, which streamlines the surgery and aftercare process once the Alliance for Smiles team is on the ground. “Within an hour and a half, we’ve changed the life of a child and their family.”
Shielding Her Community From Harm
Also active in the Rotary Club of San Francisco, Liu has been involved in a number of projects over the years. She’s helped provide bikes to underserved children, hosted baby showers for mothers in need and fed families facing food insecurity. She serves as the club’s president as well. “I’m the first Asian American president in the club’s history,” she says.
One of the most recent projects she worked on through the Rotary Club was in response to the rise in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans. “When I kept hearing news reports every day about an Asian person being attacked, I asked what I could do to protect others and myself,” she adds.
She’d stopped carrying a purse and quit wearing her jewelry outside of her home, but she wanted to do more at the community level. She wanted to provide a layer of safety to the Asian American community in San Francisco, so she wrote a grant for personal safety alarms. The alarm, about 2.5 inches, fits on a keychain or lanyard. It has a pin that, when pulled, releases a 130-decibel siren designed to scare off the attacker or alert the surrounding area that the individual is in trouble. “Through Rotary Club, we partnered with the San Francisco Police Department, the Chamber of Commerce and other Rotary Clubs to identify where the greatest need was,” she says.
They identified Asian seniors in low-income housing areas as being the most in need. Liu and the Rotary Club then partnered with the local Mercy Housing, the Catholic Charities and a local food bank to distribute the safety alarms. “This is about education as well,” Liu says. “We’ve not only handed out thousands of these alarms but also made sure the seniors knew how to use them and where to carry them. We also handed out pamphlets with information on how and when to use the alarm.”The safety devices, she says, provide a layer of protection for a section of the community that had none. “In Chinatown, for instance, seniors were scared to get their food or walk the streets of San Francisco. Having the alarm gives them a sense of security.”