A Conversation with Ellen McCoy,
Natural Mentor and Groundbreaker
by Julia Tolstrup, Save the Children
100 Strong Member Ellen McCoy has lived a life of veering away from the script. As a woman and an oil industry executive for 25 years, she was a rarity in the field and was tapped to help pioneer gender and diversity work within Mobil Oil. Her role also provided the opportunity to travel the world during turbulent times on the geopolitical stage. Ellen’s frequent travels throughout Africa gave her an intimate view of extreme circumstances for women and girls – experiences that ignited a passion for gender- and child-focused philanthropy.
Upon retirement, Ellen delved deeper into these charitable interests. She had been a sponsor for Save the Children for many years, but in 2017 she decided she wanted to do more. That year she made a larger contribution to Save the Children, to the agency’s Center for Girls and Gender Equality.
Around that time, Ellen met Yeva Avakyan, Save the Children’s Senior Managing Director of Gender Equality. The two formed a fast bond and Ellen became an informal mentor to Yeva, as Save began to deepen its gender and diversity work, internally and externally.
Now officially a mentor through 100 Strong, Ellen says mentoring comes quite naturally for her. Having managed thousands of individuals over the course of her career, and as the top-ranked woman at Mobil Oil, she was the go-to for promising young women in the field. Ellen’s own aptitude for mentoring comes after a long career, but she hopes others in 100 Strong will take the leap, stepping forward to share the wealth of knowledge, guidance and lived experiences they undoubtedly have to offer.
In August of 2021, Ellen watched in horror as terrified Afghans attempted to flee their country to escape the grip of the Taliban. “I just had to do something to help,” she said. And help she did. In October 2021, Ellen deployed as a hands-on volunteer for Save the Children’s response for newly arrived Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss in Texas. This would turn out to be a profound few weeks, giving Ellen a perspective on the experiences of Afghan families that could only come from getting to know them personally – from sitting alongside them, listening to their stories, and affirming their value as human beings.
After a grueling journey from Afghanistan, Ellen explains, families were grateful to be safe, but their time at Fort Bliss was far from easy. At this temporary village in the desert built by the U.S. military, the constant rumble of generators was, at times, deafening, and wind storms kicked up sand and sound. The portable toilets provided were not designed with children in mind. All guests lived communally, sometimes with 25 families in a single large tent. Children could be heard crying at all hours of the night, and there was always someone phoning relatives back in Afghanistan, a full 12 hours ahead. Sleep was scarce and comfort almost non-existent. During the day, there was nothing to do but wait. Witnessing these conditions gave Ellen a new appreciation for Save the Children’s Child Friendly Spaces, whose whimsical name, she says, belies their fundamental significance
“I had never really quite gotten the importance of the Child Friendly Spaces…it’s so much more powerful than the name implies in what it does for families, in allowing them to actually retain their humanity.”
In many ways, Ellen’s journey with Save the Children – and with 100 Strong – has only just begun. She looks forward to continuing her immersion in this type of work, and to the day when members of 100 Strong are able to connect in person. In particular, she wants to bear witness to the depth of need right here in the U.S., and hopes that 100 Strong can come together to lend their hands and hearts to kids and families in their own backyard.
As Ellen says, it’s important “to understand the layers of deprivation and how close it is…it’s another way to expand [our] horizons.”
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