Whether Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, is touring a natural disaster, a war-torn country or a camp overrun with refugees, she always sees children playing.
They may be kicking a ball made of paper or hugging a doll made of rags or straw, but they are still happily playing.
“If you turn on music, they will dance,” said the woman who boasts that she has “played Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in just about every language.”
It is the resiliency of children that keeps Stern going. But, she is aware these children have “scars that are going to be with them for a long time,” including physical and intellectual problems due to malnourishment and disease.
When in Guatemala, Stern met with young women who were making bricks. “They had all been victims of sexual violence,” she said. But they didn’t reflect on their past; instead they told her “the new day starts with me.”
So many of their problems “are fixable, curable,” she said. Without war and with proper medicine, vaccines and clean water, many of these woes would disappear. Her goal is “zero hunger, zero poverty, zero disease,” which she described in her 2013 book, I Believe in Zero.
Stern was in Washington last week to attend Fortune’s Most Powerful Women event and launch a new fundraising program, UNICEF Kid Power. A $40 bracelet encourages children to be more active while teaching them about other cultures in a gamelike program that awards points for exercising.
The bracelet “lights up, and it buzzes. Kids love it,” she said. The money raised will be used to deliver food to malnourished children around the world.
To some, Stern’s would be an office job, and other workers would head into the field. But Stern said she needs to “bear witness.” She understands the importance of retelling stories from firsthand knowledge, having grown up in a family steeped in Holocaust memories.
Her mother was 6, and her uncle 4, in 1939 when their mother, Stern’s grandmother, kissed them goodbye and sent them from Vienna to America with a woman they didn’t know. Stern’s mother and uncle ended up in an orphanage in the Lower East Side of New York City.
That same year, her grandfather sailed on the German trans-Atlantic liner St. Louis from Germany to Cuba, where it was forced to return to Europe when no country would open its arms to the Jewish passengers.
Growing up, “the two stories we constantly heard were how nobody gave a damn” to help the Jews, according to her grandfather, and “how nice people were to take my mother in and care for her.”
Stern, the mother of three boys, knew she wasn’t going to be the one to turn her back on children who through no fault of their own were suffering. She has traveled to 32 countries during her eight years at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
Her organization was branded anti-Jewish and anti-Israel many years ago when one of the camps it sponsored in Beirut to keep children off the street subsequently was renamed after a suicide bomber.
When the Reform movement heard this, it immediately ended its sponsorship of the program.
Although the camp’s renaming was unofficial, “the damage had been done,” and for years, Jewish children stopped carrying the bright orange UNICEF collection boxes during Halloween, Stern recalled.
People hear that UNICEF has programs in areas hostile to Israel, including most recently the Gaza Strip, and they condemn the organization, Stern said. But UNICEF’s mandate allows it to operate only in underdeveloped countries, and Israel is not one, she said.
It does make exceptions. It has set up a recreation center for children in Sderot, who grow up under the constant threat of bombing.
“There is a UNICEF office in Israel,” she said. “UNICEF has absolutely no politics. We don’t deal with adults. … We only want to give the children what they need.”
Stern’s current focus are young people fleeing their countries, sometimes without any adult supervision. “I call them children,” she said. “They aren’t migrants. They are not refugees. They are not illegal aliens. They are kids.”
Some 30 million children, 13 million of them from the Middle East and North Africa, need a permanent place to live and a school to attend regularly, she said.
She has heard people ask why help children who may “blow us up when they grow up,” Stern said. To that, she replies that a good way to show someone that Americans and Israelis are not evil is to save their children.
Stern, who previously worked at the Anti-Defamation League for 18 years and was a 2014 Jewish Women International Woman to Watch, believes that the Jewish “firm belief in tikkun olam and not putting the sins of our fathers on children” make it necessary to be involved.
“I stand very proudly as a Jewish woman at the helm of this organization. Right now is our moment,” she explained. “This is our opportunity to stand up for everything we believe.”