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“I defy anyone to say that one life has more value than another,” said Stern. “And what better way is there to ensure safety and security than to save someone’s child? That’s the way you build bridges.”
In general, though, Stern eschews taking sides in political discussions. Her time is limited, she says, and the needs of children — UNICEF’s and her own — are her top priority.
She credits the support of her husband, real estate developer Donald LaRosa, and their three sons — James, 14; Lee, 18, and Brian, who is now married with two small children — for helping to keep her grounded despite her jet-setting lifestyle. Her work has also initiated conversations among her family members about their own consumption; she was proud when one son took the initiative and imposed a shorter shower rule in the house to conserve water.
In her book, Stern recounts two trips she organized for her sons and their peers, the first to Brazil and the second to Peru. In Peru, her youngest son suffered altitude sickness. She panicked as she realized that the clinic she was taking her son to — clean for Peru — was far below the standard of care she usually provided to her children.
Stern says that as a mother, one of the hardest parts of her job at UNICEF is reconciling the hardships that she sees with the privileged lives she can provide her sons in America.
As an example of the tension she sometimes feels, she discussed the fact that the U.S. Fund for UNICEF does not accept donations from candy companies — though UNICEF funds in other countries do — because of the industry’s negative impact on child obesity and nutrition. But as a mother who knows the fear of failing to provide for her children, she admitted feeling conflicted about the policy.
“If my child were in front of me with no food to eat and you said to me, ‘I can save your child if I take money from a company that contributes to obesity, I’d probably find that acceptable,’” Stern said, adding quickly, “That’s just Caryl Stern, that’s not UNICEF.”
Of course, balancing motherhood and her work at UNICEF has not always been easy. Stern still wrings her hands each time she boards another plane that will take her far away from her family. But she attempts to be a present parent even while overseas. During her Darfur trip, she writes in the book, she assisted her son with algebra homework over the phone as a Sudanese child sat on her lap. Both children were comforted by her presence.
Stern is candid about not having all the solutions to the problems facing the world’s impoverished children. But she just wants to be part of finding the answers, which she says will come from a melding of traditional and new ideas: “One of things I never say in the book that I wish I had said was that some of the most effective means of changing the worlds of children are the least costly.” She cites one initiative in rural Ethiopia that enlisted teenagers in teaching younger students with pebbles and inexpensive flash cards.