International Women's Day: How Holly Peppe's leadership put Orbis on the map

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re celebrating some of the incredible women in the Orbis family whose expertise and dedication is helping the next generation of women and girls reach their potential. This is Holly Peppe – former Director of External Affairs at Orbis – and the story of how her trailblazing work put Orbis on the map.

Holly Peppe was named Director of External Affairs in 1988 after her predecessor Penn Staples moved to London to open a new Orbis office there. By Holly’s own admission she was a brave choice for the role, as an English professor and poetry scholar with little PR or fundraising experience.

But that didn't deter our then CEO, Oliver Foot from considering her for the position—with fledgling organizations, as Orbis was then, he felt it was more important to attract people with the right spirit, rather than the right resume.

Former Orbis Director of External Affairs Holly Peppe with the late Oliver Foot And The Team In India

Holly (bottom right) and the team at an opening ceremony in India

So after meeting Holly and reading her recently published article in the New York Times about her life as an idealistic hippie, he was convinced she was the right person for the job.

For Holly it was an exciting and challenging proposition to leave the classroom and apply her writing and teaching skills to the nonprofit world. ‘Earning her wings’ in the field of communications would be time-intensive but rewarding, as she felt passionate about the importance of the Orbis mission.

In my first months on the job, given my limited knowledge of PR, there was definitely a learning curve, but Oliver was a wonderful mentor, taking me with him on missions and teaching me how to pitch the media, work with press representatives, and organize press conferences,” Holly recalled.

Interview: Holly Peppe Former Orbis Director of External Affairs

Holly's work took her around the world on our DC-8 Flying Eye Hospital

It wasn’t long before Holly was flying abroad on her own to work with colleagues in the field, often accompanied by reporters and TV crews from the national and international media. In addition to developing story angles that would attract press coverage, she wrote publicity and fundraising materials designed to update and promote the Orbis brand.

Thanks to her poetic prose, Holly developed a distinctive Orbis voice that secured both increased donor support and front-page headlines around the world.

In 1991 Holly invited a group of reporters from the U.S. and UK to cover a remarkable Orbis mission to Castro’s Cuba. But first Orbis had to respond to the Cuban government’s concern that their visit would not reflect badly on the quality of the Cuban eye care system.

They would also need to appeal to the U.S. government to make an exception to its 30-year travel ban to Cuba by allowing the plane and its many American personnel to land there.

After some diplomatic wrangling, which included Oliver appealing to Castro’s friend, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for assistance, Castro provided Orbis with a formal invitation to visit. But the U.S. State Department initially refused Orbis’s request to accept the invite, citing Treasury Department regulations.

In response, Holly assisted Oliver in writing a persuasive letter to the State Department, assuring them that Orbis was non-political and had medical goals only for the visit. The letter also promised that any money spent on site in Cuba was raised in offices outside the U.S. Within days, the State Department accepted those terms and the mission was on!

Once the team was on the ground in Cuba, Holly and Geoff Holland, Director of the Flying Eye Hospital, wrote a letter to Castro, inviting him to visit the plane. Working out of a hotel room in Havana, they crafted what they considered to be a sincere, non-political invitation to observe Orbis’s work firsthand.

Former Orbis Director of External Affairs Holly Peppe interview: Meeting Cuba's Fidel Castro in Havana 1991

Holly meets Fidel Castro with other members of the Orbis team

"It was an exciting time for the Orbis team, as we felt we were making history,” Holly recalls. “But because we knew Castro was proud of the excellent medical care and education he provided to Cubans, we weren’t sure how we’d be received and whether he himself would visit the plane. Our fears were quelled when, once the Orbis program was in full swing, Castro accepted our invitation and he and his entourage, flanked by an Army security detail, appeared on the tarmac to greet a line-up of Orbis staff. It felt like a dream as he extended his hand to each of us, welcoming us to Havana.

Castro was fascinated by the on-board hospital and spent almost four hours aboard the plane, meeting the medical team and other ORBIS staff as well. He also donned scrubs (after they were examined by his handlers) so he could enter the operating room and view a surgery in progress.”

Fidel Castro In Scrubs On The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital in Havana, Cuba

Castro in scrubs on the Orbis plane

Holly Peppe

Former Orbis Director of External Affairs

It was an excit­ing time for the Orbis team, as we felt we were mak­ing history.

Of course, the main purpose of the trip was to share skills and provide best-in-class training to local Cuban doctors and nurses which, according to Holly, was a resounding success.

Local doctors and nurses were grateful for the training and impressed by the expertise, patience, and efficiency of our medical team. What the Cuban ophthalmologists showed us was fascinating too — a conveyor belt eye surgery system introduced to Cuba by the renowned Soviet ophthalmologist Svyatoslav Fyodorov. Instead of having each surgeon perform a complete eye surgery on one patient at a time, a row of doctors was stationed along a conveyor belt full of patients, performing the same procedure on each patient as the belt moved them along.”

Former Director of External Affairs Holly Peppe Interview: Conveyor Belt Surgery In Havana, Cuba in 1991

The conveyor belt eye surgery system in use in a Havana hospital

The Orbis team’s evenings in Havana were memorable too, as the staff and crew were treated like VIP’s, attending a dinner show at the colorful Copacabana night club and accepting parting gifts of rum liqueur and Cuban cigars. Their historic visit to Cuba was documented in the New York Times.

Former Director of External Affairs Holly Peppe Interview: Captain Jack Race And The Spirit Of Orbis 1989

Captain Race and the “Spirit of Orbis”

Holly’s travels with Orbis also included India, China, Bulgaria, Romania, and El Salvador, where she narrated a live surgery in Italian for the Italian equivalent of the TV news show “60 Minutes.”

Back at home, she directed a three-month PR and fundraising tour for former Orbis Chief Pilot Jack Race, who flew his small plane, “The Spirit of Orbis,” to 53 cities across the U.S. As he retraced the route of Charles Lindbergh’s American aviation tour, Holly and her staff placed media stories and organized press events nationwide. In a show of support for the cause, Holly joined Captain Race in Washington, D.C. and flew with him to Baltimore.

Captain Jack Race prepping Holly for flight

Soon after she started working at Orbis, Holly welcomed Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson to visit the plane, as he had been donating Virgin flights to volunteer doctors and Orbis administrators traveling between New York and London.

Holly Peppe

Former Orbis Director of External Affairs

I’ll always trea­sure the mem­o­ries of my eight years work­ing for an orga­ni­za­tion with altru­is­tic, non-polit­i­cal goals that actu­al­ly makes a dif­fer­ence in the qual­i­ty of people’s lives. It’s a pow­er­ful feel­ing to real­ize that your work mat­ters — every­one at Orbis, then and now, can cer­tain­ly make that claim.

Holly welcomes Richard Branson and his children to the plane

Holly soon met Richard Branson’s parents too, and accompanied them to India to see Orbis at work in the field. In the years that followed, Holly worked closely with Richard’s mother Eve, editing her personal diaries and compiling them in a memoir, Mum’s the Word: The High-Flying Adventures of Eve Branson.

This book, which appeared in 2012, includes a chapter describing Eve’s impressions of Orbis and her visit to Burma to visit the Orbis program there.

We thank Holly for contributing her talent and skills to Orbis — without her intrepid leadership, Orbis would not be the organization it is today.

Read more about some of the other women in the Orbis family this International Women's Day.

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