A conversation with Caryl Stern

Illustration by Berto Martinez

From the August 2015 issue of The Rotarian

The six-day-old baby shuddered with convulsions. Her mother, Memunatu, had given birth at home and cut her daughter's umbilical cord with what she could find – a sharp piece of metal. When the newborn contracted tetanus, Memunatu walked miles to reach a clinic. That's where Caryl Stern encountered the pair. Stern was on a field visit with UNICEF in Sierra Leone and stayed with Memunatu, trying to comfort her, until the child died. The image of the baby in pain, hypersensitive to light and sound, stayed with Stern as she got off the plane in New York and headed home to her own family. "I realized that the pizza I asked my son to order that night because I didn't feel like cooking cost more than the vaccine that would have prevented this disease," she says. "On my most frustrating day, I bring myself back to that moment. That's why I'm here."

Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, sits in a corner office adorned with hand-drawn pictures and brightly colored paintings by children she's met around the world. "Kids are awesome," she says as she shows off the homemade gallery. "As bad as it is in some places, kids are still kids." In 2007, she joined the U.S. Fund for UNICEF after almost two decades as a senior official at the Anti-Defamation League. In her new role, she learned about UNICEF's humanitarian work by visiting country after country, sleeping in tents and under bed nets. She wrote a book titled "I Believe in Zero" – something she started saying to rally her team around the possibility of bringing the number preventable child deaths to zero.

She says she has seen humanity at its best, but she's frustrated that most people don't share her sense of urgency to help children, especially those trapped in conflict zones. "I'm trying to balance my urgency against a complacent world," she says, noting that donations for programs to help Syrian refugees are lagging. "It's our job to be the voice of that child sitting in a tent tonight." Contributing Editor Vanessa Glavinskas talked with Stern at her Manhattan office.

THE ROTARIAN: What led you to work at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF?

STERN: My entire career has been child-focused. I worked in higher education for 10 years, and then I had an opportunity to start an education project with the Anti-Defamation League. I'm a Holocaust survivor's kid, so the opportunity was enticing enough that I gave up tenure and went, thinking I'd do it for a year. I ended up staying 18 years.

I thought I'd stay there for the rest of my career when a job opened with UNICEF. I grew up in a household where we were taught that if you saved one life, you saved the world. So the opportunity to work for an organization where I could do that seemed phenomenal. Almost three weeks to the day after I got to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Bill Gates offered our then-CEO a job you don't turn down. He came into my office and said, "You're going to hate me, but I'm leaving." I knew nothing about humanitarian aid, though I knew a lot about running a nonprofit. The board made me acting president while they did an international search, and in that year, I learned everything I could about the delivery of humanitarian aid. I was fortunate that the board took a leap of faith and gave me the job.

TR: What do you remember from those early days in the field?

STERN: The first day of a trip to Sierra Leone, I witnessed a baby dying of tetanus. But it wasn't only the death of the child I remember – it was the hospital, which had nothing. There weren't beds. The mothers would go outside and cook a meal over a fire and bring it in to feed their children. If they had other children, they'd sleep in the hospital too. Because so much of Sierra Leone has no power and there are oil lamps, many of the kids in the hospital were severely burned, yet there wasn't even Tylenol or aspirin. Just walking through the hospital was traumatic. I hadn't seen medical care at that level anywhere else. I've since seen it in a lot of places.

TR: In an op-ed you wrote for USA Today, you reported that 2014 was the worst year in recent memory for atrocities committed against children. It's hard to believe that the world broke a record for abusing children.

STERN: Growing up as a Holocaust survivor's kid, the question I would ask repeatedly was, "Why didn't somebody stop this?" We can't pretend that we don't know what's going on. It's in the newspapers. It's on TV, and it's on the Internet. We know it's happening, but we choose not to focus on it.
We have a match fund for the Syrian refugee crisis, and we're struggling to meet the match. There are huge funding gaps. I wish I could pack everybody into a bus and drive to a refugee camp, because once you spend an hour there, there's no way you will let people suffer.

TR: There are millions of refugees coming out of Syria. Why is it so difficult to raise money to help them?

STERN: I think that's what happens with big numbers. When I talk about the refugee crisis, I say that Lebanon is a country of four million people – that's about the same size as Los Angeles – and they've taken in over a million refugees. Let's picture Los Angeles taking in more than a million refugees. When you put it in that context, people begin to understand what an amazing thing that is. There are over a million people who suddenly showed up with no means of financial support. Now you have to support them all. You have to feed them all. You have to keep them clean. You have to make sure the kids get educated. You have to give them a road out. That's more than the people of LA, or Lebanon, can do on their own. When you say it in those terms, people start to understand why we all need to help.

TR: Your mother came to the United States as a child refugee. What was your upbringing like?

STERN: My mom came here in 1939, when she was six and her brother was four. Relatives met them at the ship. But the relatives were poor; they couldn't support the children, so my mom and her brother were put into an orphanage on the Lower East Side here on Manhattan. Their father – my grandfather – was on the MS St. Louis, which is known as the "voyage of the damned" because it was not allowed to dock anywhere. He ended up in a prisoner of war camp in London before making it to the United States about two years later. My grandmother survived the war in Vienna but died shortly after coming to this country, 10 years after she had kissed her children goodbye. My mother was 16 when she saw her mother again. So I grew up in a house where my mother had time for any child, at any moment. My mother was also the epitome of a community leader. We were at anti-war rallies. We were at civil rights rallies. She's still that way. She's in her 80s, and she volunteers all over the place. It definitely influenced both my brother and me.

TR: Do you think your compassion for child refugees stems from the experiences of your mother?

STERN: My mother still has the yellow star that she had to wear every day. She still has the passport that says Jew, not Austrian. I know it's what drives me, and I know it is what makes me both good at my job and, in some ways, impossible. My team will tell you I will get stuck on something and I will be relentless. I'm still saving this little girl who came over the ocean.

TR: How exactly does UNICEF help refugee children?

STERN: First, UNICEF does whatever it takes to save that child. So while he or she is in the refugee camp, UNICEF makes sure that child gets nutrition. UNICEF makes sure that he or she has access to water, access to sanitation, that he or she is protected from those who might prey on him or her, that he or she can't be sold or stolen, can't be forced into prostitution. Then we create a space where he or she still gets to be a child. Kids sing songs, they dance, they draw pictures, they work out the emotional response to what's happening through expression, and they still get to be a child. Then UNICEF works with governments to ensure that every child has access to education, which is the road out of that tent.

TR: Rotary and UNICEF work together on polio eradication. In our partnership, one of UNICEF's key roles is to get the word out about why vaccination is important. With the resurgence of vaccine-preventable illnesses making news in the United States, how do you do that?

STERN: I don't think that people who choose not to vaccinate their children do so with any malice. However, I don't believe that they have taken that next step in their minds as to what that means for a child. They made a personal choice for their own children, but we are now looking at measles again. So yesterday, perhaps, it was a personal choice, but today it isn't. Today it is a choice that is affecting public health, and I believe that those of us who care about children need to set parameters that protect children.

TR: How does UNICEF educate people in polio-endemic countries about the benefits of the polio vaccine?

STERN: One of the more effective approaches is what we call "lady health workers." A local person, a trusted person, is educated and trained, and then goes door to door and talks to people in her own community, mom to mom. Vaccinators go into the community so people don't have to walk 100 miles to get the vaccine.

TR: What was UNICEF's role during the Ebola crisis?

STERN: UNICEF's primary role has been helping children who were infected and those who lost a parent or both parents. UNICEF is also responsible for door-to-door campaigns to tell people what to look for, how to notify authorities, and where to go for help. We distributed hygiene kits and medical supplies, and that work will continue.

About 16,000 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola; UNICEF is reuniting them with a surviving parent or helping to find extended family. It's a huge undertaking. We also match Ebola survivors, who have immunity, with children who have been exposed, to take care of them during the 21-day incubation period. UNICEF worked with governments and other partners to create that match-up, and it was brilliant. It's a remarkable program.

TR: In addition to our polio partnership, how can Rotary members support the work of UNICEF?

STERN: They can use the power of their podiums. Our government leaders are going to put children first when voters demand that children come first. Rotarians are leaders in their communities. They are influencers. There is an opportunity for them to join with UNICEF and say the best investment we can make in this world is an investment in our children.

The Rotarian