While the United States has taken a leading role in helping children living in poverty reach their fifth birthdays, a sustained commitment to foreign assistance is needed to ensure that we continue to move in the right direction. Read more in my June Huffington Post piece.

The Importance of Age Five

image

I love this picture of me at five. In my very formal attire of cap and gown, if you look carefully, you can see that the gown is on backwards.

The picture was taken at my kindergarten graduation. It was my mother’s first experience with a cap and gown. My family had emigrated from Ireland about two years earlier, and formal graduations were a whole new experience for my parents, who had both finished school when they were about 13. On my graduation day, my mother dressed me up in the cap and gown, took these pictures (in front of my neighbor’s house, next to the one my family was renting) and sent me to walk the mile to school. She came up later for the ceremony with my baby sister. When I got to school, one of the classmates’ moms took one look at me, called me over and helped me to turn the gown around. To my mom, it made sense that the zipper always went in the back!

Since that first graduation, over the years, my mom probably had more than 30 encounters with caps and gowns. With eight kids in my family, it always seemed like someone was graduating from someplace — between grammar school, high school, college and beyond (I was the only one who had such a formal kindergarten graduation experience). If I were to start adding in the graduations of her 18 grandchildren, that number would only grow. That first graduation day, however, has forever been immortalized with her proud picture of me in the backwards gown.

Although life was not easy for my mother, with a limited education raising eight children in a new country, there was never a question in the USA of her children surviving beyond their fifth birthdays. From my work in ChildFund, I know the same is not true for millions of children around the world. In the past 24 years, fantastic progress has been made in reducing the number of children dying before they reach five — from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 48 deaths per 1,000 births in 2012.

We should celebrate that progress with pride and deep satisfaction knowing we’ve helped make the world a safer place to be a child. At the same time, since 6.6 million children are expected to die this year before they reach five, we need to shout it from the roof tops that more can — and should — be done to have more children celebrate that special day. This week, more than 100 groups (including ChildFund) are participating in 5th Birthday and Beyond to recognize both the successes and the challenges facing children worldwide. That’s why I’ve changed my avatar temporarily to my graduation picture. 

We know how to help children survive beyond their fifth birthdays. We don’t need caps and gowns to make that possible but we do need the U.N., national governments, donors, NGOs, the private sector, local governments, communities and parents working together to ensure more kids celebrate that all important day. Who knows, maybe we can get another of those backward gown pictures as proof that we succeeded. 

unicef:


This is just one of the 25 achievements we are celebrating as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in November. Learn more about the progress we’ve made and what still needs to be done: http://uni.cf/crc

unicef:

This is just one of the 25 achievements we are celebrating as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in November. Learn more about the progress we’ve made and what still needs to be done: http://uni.cf/crc

MLK Jr. Had It Right

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." — Martin Luther King, Jr.

As president of ChildFund, sometimes when I talk with people about the 1 billion children living in poverty globally, I see an uninterested shadow cross their face. It’s not their issue; their concerns lie closer to home. 

When I say that 6.6 million children died before their 5th birthday in 2012, though, I can tell the pictures of their own much-loved children or grandchildren flash before their eyes. I imagine they say a quick prayer of thanks for the lives their loved ones live – and then move on with their own busy lives. When I tell someone that each year 14 million girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday, or tens of thousands are forced into female genital cutting or child prostitution, I see their discomfort level rise — accompanied by a desire to look toward less painful subjects.

image

One of many “dedicated individuals” helping children in the Philippines. Photo by Jobeth Jerao.

I understand — and support — that individuals can be passionate and dedicated to the many other problems that plague our world and our neighborhoods. Having been a working mother my whole career, I can fully appreciate that people’s lives are way too busy, and that juggling the responsibilities of home and work can often leave energy for little else. And who wouldn’t want to turn away from things that cause us pain? Our lives can seem short on joy and happiness.

These things I can accept. But what I have a hard time accepting is that many people believe the world is made to be unjust and/or the problems these children face are too big, too far away and too complex for them — individually — to do anything about it anyway. So they choose to do nothing. 

MLK Jr. had it right. Human progress is not inevitable, nor is it inevitable that millions of children must continue to suffer. Many steps have been taken in the last 25 years to improve the lives of children — the rate of children dying before their 5th birthday has been cut nearly in half since 1990. That happened because of the “tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Those many dedicated individuals include the more than 350,000 people here at home who support the work of ChildFund in the 30 countries where we work to improve the lives of children. 

So, as we celebrate the life and gifts of Martin Luther King, Jr., throw away any beliefs you might have held that nothing can be done to help children living in poverty. Become a “dedicated individual” by taking an interest in your fellow humans, especially children.

You can visit our website for some information, or talk to your friends, neighbors or family who might already be one of those dedicated believers — and learn how they help. 

Only about two in five children under 6-months-old in the developing world are breastfed. ChildFund is working to change that statistic. Read more in my recent HuffPost.

Presidents, Mud and ‘Stickiness’

President Obama is wrapping up his trip to Africa, which included a visit to Senegal last week. Although my own visit to ChildFund’s programs in Senegal a few years ago did not get the same kind of press coverage that the president’s did (actually, it had no press coverage at all!), it was still a memorable trip.

ChildFund has been working in Senegal since 1985, offering many programs to improve the lives of vulnerable children. We are placing major emphasis on extending basic health care services for mothers and children living in remote, rural areas. Working in partnership with USAID and other community development organizations, ChildFund is supporting establishment of more than 2,000 fully functional health huts and 1,717 outreach sites in Senegal, while helping develop a national community health policy. At the end of this five-year project, ChildFund will have assisted more than 9 million Senegalese people in 71 districts.

image

My trip was focused on those rural communities, meeting with children, parents and community leaders and touring the health huts we helped establish to provide those much-needed basic health services like vaccinations, treatment of diarrhea and malaria and other lifesaving interventions.

Although I prefer to arrive quietly in a village and have a low-key visit, it was not to be in the villages I visited in Senegal. Once they heard the president of ChildFund was visiting, an elaborate and warm welcome was planned. However, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate on that day. The welcoming speeches had just begun in the local schoolyard when the skies opened up and it started to pour. Hundreds of people made a mad dash for the school buildings and crowded into whatever dry space they could find. The welcoming ceremony continued as best as it could in the crowded space; it was a little chaotic, but spirits were high, with lots of singing and laughter.

Of course, just as things were wrapping up, the sun came out. As I made my way out through the crowded and drenched schoolyard, trying as much as possible to avoid the mud, I was stopped by a big mud puddle, too big to jump over. Suddenly a traditional band with four or five players appeared on the opposite side of the puddle. Obviously disappointed that their performance had been cancelled due to the rain, they seized the opportunity of finding me still on the grounds and began to play.

What stands out most in my mind from that day was one of the dancers. As he was getting into the music, he glanced down at the enormous mud puddle, shrugged his shoulders slightly (as if to say, “whatever”) and flipped over – dancing to the music on his hands in the middle of the muddy water. Hand dancing was obviously a big part of their act, and he was determined not to let a little mud stop the show!

I don’t know what will stick in President Obama’s mind after his trip to Senegal. For me, in addition to my “mud dancer,” it is the warmth of the Senegalese people and the determination of the families I met to bring up happy and healthy children. ChildFund is proud to be their partner.