MARS HILL, Maine — When Betsy Allen arrived in Morocco in 2013 as part of a one week volunteer teaching experience, she believed she would spend her week in the capital city of Rabat educating underprivileged children.

Instead, she was relocated to work at an after school cultural center in Casablanca, where she spent her week with some of the nation’s poorest children and where she met a teenager with such severely deformed feet that it “just made me want to cry.”

“Instantly, I knew I wanted to help him,” Allen said of Abdelkhalek El Malyani, the teen she met at the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center. She said Abdelkhalek’s feet and heels face inward and are so deformed that he has trouble walking and is in pain.

“I couldn’t believe the way he was walking,” she said. “The deformity he had could have easily been fixed in childhood if he was born in the United States.”

But he grew up in Sidi Momen, Casablanca, the largest shanty-town, slum in the country, “a place of abject poverty and despair,” where “in many places, garbage is knee deep, metal and cardboard lean-tos that serve as homes line the roads and span for miles,” Allen said.

Without proper medical care, Abdelkhalek just had to adapt, she said.

“So he had learned to walk on the sides of his feet,” Allen said, “but he will never be able to run, hold certain jobs, and complete many other tasks that many of us take for granted.”

After she returned home, she always had in the back of her mind that she wished she could do something to help Abdelkhalek. But it wasn’t until more than two years later that she realized how she might do that when a school nurse at the Fort Street Elementary School in Mars Hill, where Allen taught English, sent an email to teachers alerting them about a Shriners orthopedic clinic being offered to help needy students.

“This ignited that spark inside me that had been smoldering for nearly three years,” Allen said.

That’s when she started researching Shriners International and building a case for the organization to help Abdelkhalek.

After some effort, Allen learned June 1 that the Shriners had accepted Abdelkhalek’s case and that a team of orthopedic surgeons would meet with him Aug. 15 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Shriners will fund all of his medical costs, she said, though until the doctors meet with him in August, they won’t know for sure whether they will be fitting him with foot braces or performing surgery on both his feet.

Other expenses such as airfare and food will not be covered, however, so Allen is busy trying to raise money for the now 20-year-old Moroccan and likely one translator to get to the U.S.

Allen said she is not sure how long he’ll be in the U.S. but she has set up a GoFundMe page to raise $5,000 for the cause. As of Sunday, the site had raised $435.

To donate, visit

Working on the case also inspired Allen, who has taught middle school English for nine years, to resign her position last spring and “to follow my heart and fulfill a life-long dream of becoming a nurse practitioner, hopefully with a specialty in orthopedics.”

She starts a nursing program in the fall.