How A Silent Girl Named Serenity Finally Found Her Words

 

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

 

 

An early start on learning means everything when it comes to a child’s future. Yet too many children living in poverty in America and around the world don’t have access to a quality early education. In fact, children from low-income homes hear an average of 30 million fewer words by age 3 than their peers from well-off families, putting them at a disadvantage before they even start school. These are children like Serenity from Nebraska, who at 3 years old wasn’t able to speak in sentences that consisted of more than two words. One of three siblings, Serenity lives in a remote community in a rural part of the state, where families struggle to make ends meet. Often, when parents have to worry about putting food on the table, books and reading take a back seat.

 

What’s more, quality early childhood education is not an option in many poverty-stricken communities. As a result, by the time she is 4 years old, Serenity was at risk of being 18 months behind other 4-year-olds who are lucky enough to be born with more opportunities. But like most parents, Serenity’s mom and dad want the best for their kids and they see education as the only way out of poverty. “We know we are in the situation we are in financially because we did not take education seriously when we were younger,” Serenity’s mother, Diane, told Save the Children. “We don’t want our children to have to live through the constant struggles that we are living.” That’s why her parents enrolled Serenity in Save the Children’s early childhood education program, which consists of weekly home visits by a program coordinator who brings a bagful of books for the kids. The program encourages parents to continuously interact with their children through stimulating conversation and daily reading.

 

After only three months, Serenity found her words — and scored impressively high on her development assessment test. Not only that, but her parents also discovered her hidden talent for singing! She can sing “The Wheels on the Bus” tune without missing a beat — or a word. “I know her language skills improved because of the books Save the Children gave us each week,” said Diane, amazed at her child’s transformation. “She is so excited to have me read to her and then she has to tell me a story too.”  Together we can help kids like Serenity find their words. And what better day to start than today, International Literacy Day?

 

Teaming up with our artist ambassador Jennifer Garner, we launched our 30-day #FindtheWords campaign last month to bring attention to this early learning gap affecting millions of children. Today, to mark the culmination of the campaign, other celebrities will join us in a day-long virtual word-a-thon by sharing their favorite word with their social media networks and encouraging their fans to do the same. Our goal is to start a conversation and spread the word far and wide. Leading up to the big day, 30 of the top influencers in the blogosphere have been riling up their audiences and garnering support through Save the Children’s 30 Days/30 Words blogger challenge. To raise awareness, each blogger has written a post highlighting a specific, meaningful word. The 30 posts in 30 days symbolize the 30 million words too many kids miss out on. You can read some of their inspiring posts here.

 

But you don’t have to be a celebrity or a blogger to get involved. Each and every one of us can make a difference in the lives of all those children who continue to fall behind and are at risk of never catching up. We all have a favorite word, so post yours and tag it #FindtheWords. Thanks to social media, everyone can join our campaign and give voice to the 250 million school-age kids around the world who are unable to read, write or count.

 

Save the Children provides kids from poverty-stricken communities in the United States and around the world with access to books, essential learning support and a literacy-rich environment, setting them up for success in school and a brighter future. Our early learning programs receive support from a variety of corporate funders, including Johnson & Johnson.

 

To learn more about Save the Children’s #FindtheWords campaign and how to get involved, check out this video featuring Jennifer Garner and visit www.SavetheChildren.org/FindtheWords.

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Gaza’s Miracle Tomatoes

 

photo 1Crossing through the Israel’s Erez Crossing checkpoint and seeing the bleak landscape as you pass through the Fatah and Hamas checkpoints inside Gaza, it’s hard to imagine anything growing at all—let alone a flourishing garden. As we walked down the narrow pathway enclosed in wire mesh in the “no man’s land” of the Access Restricted Area, all we saw were donkeys pulling carts filled with rubble and surrounded by men and boys along harsh, rocky earth.  The boys and men salvage concrete, wire and metal from bombed out factories.  Others herd sheep and camels through dusty barren patches with little vegetation in sight. And it goes on like this for miles from the wall separating Gaza and Israel.  But just 20 minutes away, a farmer and his extended family met us on the dirt path and took us to see something entirely—and amazingly—different.

 

Outside a lush green field of healthy looking beans, spinach, and other vegetables and inside a simple greenhouse, he proudly pointed to row after row of beautiful red tomatoes literally falling off their vines.  This is the result of a recently-concluded project by Save the Children and other partners and funded by USAID, which helped farmers in Gaza feed their families and make a living.  The project provided help through improvement of water access and irrigation, as well as through technical training and provision of materials like plastic greenhouse sheeting.  The grandfather we visited had clearly benefited and was now running his small farm with much higher productivity and vastly increased ability to not only feed his family with his own vegetables but to take his crops to market.  There, he could sell it for needed income for additional food, school supplies for his children, and improved shelter for his large extended family, including several of his sons and their wives and children. The miracle tomatoes and beans and spinach were truly supporting them all.

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As we drove through the streets of Gaza and heard from residents about the impact of border crossing restrictions on children there—the rising rates of malnutrition and resulting stunting, the lack of basic medicines and care when children became sick, and the severe circumstances disabled children were in—I kept a hopeful thought in my head: those bursting red tomatoes we tasted on our visit.

 

They give me hope that children inside Gaza might see better days ahead, with good food to eat so they can thrive and grow like the magical garden that has been able to flourish the middle of dust and dirt.

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Time to stop talking….

 

I spent last week at the Clinton Global Initiative and the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. There was much talking about issues of international development, about the rights of children to an education, about saving children dying from preventable things like pneumonia, about making sure that the world is free from hunger. But with all this talking maybe there was simply not enough of one thing – not enough shouting. We need louder voices to make changes on what really needs to be done for poor children and families around the world. Perhaps simply put, we need more people to care and speak out about the issues we talked about there.

 

Leaders from many countries, CEO’s from big companies, and NGO leaders like me converge on New York every September for these events. We have endless meetings on international development issues, we make commitments to change the world, we go to long dinners honoring those who have done good works around the world. But does the rest of the world pay much attention to what we discuss endlessly among ourselves? I don’t think so and perhaps the most important thing for me coming out of the week is the realization that it will take something different to make real change. It will take regular people caring about what the desperate reality is for poor people around the world and wanting to change it.

 

Making that happen is a much harder task than attending the whirlwind of CGI and UNGA week, as they are affectionately called. We need to interrupt people’s lives and get them to pay attention to how the poorest people on earth live their lives – lives without health, lives without education, lives without the basic dignity of a means to support themselves and their families. Most importantly, we need people to not only pay attention but to do something once they do.

 

One way Save the Children is trying to get people to take notice is to interrupt their normal lives in the places they spend them. You can now download a new song called “Feel Again” on I-Tunes and make a difference for children dying of preventable causes. You can sign a petition on-line to stop the atrocities happening to children in Syria. And you can donate to the famine in Sahel while you play on-line games. Will all this be enough to get people to really understand how different our lives are from the millions of poor people who survive every day on less than $2? I’m not sure but I do know that if I can’t get the world to pay more attention, we’ll never make the headway we need to for the millions of children who won’t survive and thrive unless things change.

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Living in Limbo

 

Syrian children across the region have it very tough. There are now almost three million refugees who have fled Syria since the war started more than three years ago and an estimated 50% of them are children. They spread across five countries, with the highest number in Lebanon—nearly 1 million refugees living there in informal camps and in towns and cities. The country with the second highest number of displaced Syrians is Turkey, where most refugees live along a border that has not only geographic but cultural, historic, and economic ties with Syria.

 

Carolyn_Turkey_blog_2014Children here face many challenges, including the fact that most older children cannot go to school because they don’t speak Turkish. Families move constantly, trying to find work to make enough to feed themselves. But the children who have it toughest are those who are orphaned or are unaccompanied and living with extended family. Being a Syrian orphan means your father has died and thus you and your mother likely do not have any support unless family members or aid steps in to help.

 

We found a special kind of support for these children when we visited a local school. An amazing woman we met, Rana*, runs a school for orphaned Syrian children living in Antakya, giving them a bright and cheery school in which to spend their time with instruction in their native Arabic and, importantly, tutoring in Turkish and English as well. The school swells with up to 300 children in a tiny three-story house when school is in full session. When we visited, it was the start of summer vacation so there were about 60 children ages 4 through 13. Most of the children were smiling and playful, though painfully there were a few who hung back and only looked at us with sad eyes when we tried to play and smile with them. All of them had lost at least one parent—some both—and had been taken in by aunts, uncles or neighbors coming from Syria.

 

Save the Children is supplying some emergency aid to the school in the form of summer clothes and shoes, as well as school materials, but it’s not enough. Rana struggles to find support for the school, needing to pay the rent, teacher salaries, cost of instructional materials, and transportation costs to allow the children to get across town to attend. She is also raising two disabled boys as well as two other children and, despite those challenges, she raises much of the funding for the school herself. Her selflessness makes her school a bright spot for children who have been through so much, and still face so many challenges.

 

As we ended our visit, one of the youngest girls posed proudly outside the school as the bus pulled up to take her home. Rana and her teachers stood on the curb ready to help the children onto the bus. It was an ideal picture of happy student and steadfast teacher—but the circumstances are far from ideal. I hope on my next trip back to Turkey I can see Rana’s work with children grow even stronger thanks to greater support for the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

 

*Names have been changed.

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Moms are the Heroes

 

We’ve all heard it before in one form or another: “Don’t get between a mother and her baby,” “There is nothing better (or worse depending on your position!) than a fired up mom” or “Mothers are their kids’ best advocates. However you phrase it, I see evidence of this everywhere I go for my work as Save the Children’s CEO and, I guess, Mom-in-Chief. It plays out whether I’m in Washington, DC or Lexington, Kentucky or the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. And during my trip last week to rural Nepal, I saw it again in full force.

continue reading »

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No Birth Should Be Left Up to Chance

 

This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post

 

Giving birth ranks among the scariest moments for any mother. It certainly was for me. I was living in Hong Kong at the time when my second of three children was born. And he was born in a hurry. He came so fast that I actually thought I’d give birth in our car on the way to the hospital! Fortunately, that didn’t happen and I safely delivered my son Patrick surrounded by a team of well-trained doctors and nurses, not to mention my loving (and relieved!) husband by my side.

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But I’m one of the lucky ones.

 

As new research released today by Save the Children reveals, 40 million women give birth without any trained help whatsoever. What’s more, 2 million women give birth entirely alone.

 

I met one

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From the Philippines, With Love

 

The following blog first appeared on The Huffington Post.

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I met with amazing students at an elementary school in Tacloban, which suffered extensive damage during Typhoon Haiyan. Classes are now conducted in tents adorned with the children’s artwork. Photo credit: David Wardell for Save the Children

I met with amazing students at an elementary school in Tacloban, which suffered extensive damage during Typhoon Haiyan. Classes are now conducted in tents adorned with the children’s artwork. Photo credit: David Wardell for Save the Children

Love. If there is a single word that best describes what I witnessed during my visit to the Philippines last week, then that’s it. Love of family. Love of community. Love of people. Love of life.

 

So what better day than Valentine’s Day to celebrate the dedication, perseverance and, of course, love between the communities, families and children in the parts of the country that were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan? I would also like to mention a specific passion that came up over

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Guatemala: Heroes against Hunger

 

It’s hard to reconcile the beautiful highlands of Guatemala, where I was in mid-January, with this stark fact: the child malnutrition rate here is the highest in the Western hemisphere. Roughly 5 out of every 10 Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition. All

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More than Just a Handshake: How Corporate Partners Are Rolling Up Their Sleeves and Making an Impact

 

This post originally appeared on FSG.org’s blog.

The rise of partnerships between INGOs and corporations is now an established phenomenon. It’s common knowledge that promoting relationships between business and development and relief organizations holds extraordinary value for the world’s poorest families. But when do these mash-ups really work and when are they just a lot of time and money spent with little actual value for beneficiaries? continue reading »

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Syrian Kids, Lebanese Schools: A New “Normal”

 

 

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When we came inside the tent, the Syrian family of eight welcomed us warmly and urged us to sit close to the small stove in the center for warmth.

 

While the weather had improved from the previous weeks when a winter storm dropped several inches of snow and temperatures dropped below freezing, it was still very chilly.  It looked like the children were wearing many of the clothes they owned, layer upon layer, though the smallest little girl still had bare feet.  With our Lebanon team translating, we talked and learned how this family fled Syria under fire on their farm near Homs and had been living in this makeshift camp of about 100 families for close to a year.  None of the children, from high school age down to four years old, had been able to go to school since they left home—but their father talked proudly about how they had excelled back in Syria, when all had a house to live in and a school to go to. Now, he said, he feared they would fall so far behind they could never catch up.  And we learned later that several of the children were working as laborers to support the family, something the father was too ashamed to tell the strangers who came to visit.

 

Child refugees from Syria now number over one million across the region, with an estimated 400,000 in Lebanon alone.  For most of these children, their childhood has been put on hold and for many it will never be revisited.  Many teenagers will most likely never go back to school.  What will this mean for the future of Syria when families are finally able to return?

 

My first trip to Lebanon since the crisis in Syria was a sobering one.  It is a country of about four million people and is now home to close to one million refugees from Syria—25% of its population.  That’s like if 75 million people suddenly arrived on our borders in Texas or California.  We would certainly be reeling if such a thing happened and the Lebanese are struggling too.  Given the infrastructure challenges of such a huge influx of people, it’s not a surprise that many children have not been able to get into school even two or three years after they left Syria.

 

Luckily, small efforts are making a big difference for these children. We visited a government school in Bekaa Valley that has agreed to run “second shift” programs for Syrian children.  Here, with support from Save the Children, kids are able to come to school in the afternoons for about three hours, after the regular classes have left, and have basic instruction in math, reading and science in their native languages of Arabic and English.  Some instruction in regular Lebanese classrooms is in French, a language very few Syrian children speak, making it tough for Syrian children to attend regular classes in Lebanon. Though “second shift” does not provide a full day of instruction, dedicated teachers are able to at least keep kids leaning and engaged.  

 

IMG_5436But probably the biggest benefit of this effort is what being back in the classroom means for these children emotionally.  In stark contrast to the quiet, withdrawn children we met in tents in the makeshift camps, kids at the school were smiling, jumping up eagerly to answer the teacher’s questions, joking and playing with us and just so obviously happy to be in school, a place that seemed to finally make them feel like normal kids again.

 

It’s heartbreaking to think that millions of kids inside and outside Syria aren’t benefiting from being in a classroom. Save the Children is working hard to make sure that more Syrian children have the chance to get back to school, get back to a (new) “normal” and get back to experiencing the childhood they need and deserve.

 

You can help the Children of Syria by joining my fundraising team at SavetheChildren.org/refugee

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