UNICEF USA Board members Sherrie Rollins Westin, Executive Vice President, Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop and Elizabeth Smith, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Chief Executive Officer of Bloomin' Brands, Inc. traveled to Peru on a UNICEF field visit in August with their sons — David Palmer Westin, 15, and Henry Newton, 18 — to see firsthand how UNICEF programs are empowering Peruvian young people. The trip was transformative for all involved.
What prompted you to bring your son on a UNICEF field visit to Peru?
SHERRIE ROLLINS WESTIN: When my daughter, Lily, was 15, I took her with me on a UNICEF trip to Brazil and I watched how it changed her view of the world. David is seven years younger; I was eager for him to have the same experience when he turned 15. Frankly, at first, he was reluctant. But over the week we were in Peru, he grew to truly enjoy the experience. I listened to the questions he was asking the Peruvian teens and watched the way he related to them. There is nothing more rewarding for a parent than to see your child start to appreciate what they take for granted and begin to understand why it's so important that we make a difference.
UNICEF field visitors traveled by boat to meet with members of the Urco Miraño community in Peru's Mazan district. Only 7% of people living in the district have access to improved drinking water sources and only 2% have access to improved sanitation facilities. UNICEF recently worked with local partners to install 131 Ecological Dry Toilets in the districts of Indiana and Mazan.
There is nothing more rewarding for a parent than to see your child start to appreciate what they take for granted and begin to understand why it's so important that we make a difference.
What do you think was most surprising for your son?
SHERRIE ROLLINS WESTIN: He was very surprised to see the conditions in which people live, how they had very little in terms of running water or toilet facilities. He was particularly taken with the fact that violence at home is a very real issue in Peru. The prevalence of corporal punishment there had a big impact on him. He said at one point, "I had only seen things like that on TV. I've never experienced that."
On a field visit to Peru with UNICEF, 15-year-old David Palmer Westin, left, and 18-year-old Henry Newton, right, joined Peruvian teenagers on the dance floor. "He was meeting these really cool kids and he had so much in common with them in some ways, and yet they had experienced things that he could never imagine," says Westin's mother, Sherrie Rollins Westin.
How did David get along with the Peruvian kids?
SHERRIE ROLLINS WESTIN: He was meeting these really cool kids and he had so much in common with them in some ways — and yet they had experienced things that he could never imagine. All the teenage boys and girls wanted to take selfies and photos of one another, including our sons. They'd all be throwing balls around or doing little dance moves. A song would play and they'd all know it. We're such a global world today.
I saw Henry completely come out of his head and into his heart. It moved out of the policy realm for him and into the emotional realm. It deeply touched him.
Liz, how did the trip to Peru affect your son, Henry?
ELIZABETH SMITH: Henry is one of those kids who are politically involved and socially aware. He's gone to every protest he could that was within driving distance. He's a great debater — but intellectual discussions about policy issues don't get you down to the human element of what's really going on. It was great to see my high-minded son learning at the grassroots level about the human side of things that he feels passionately about, the challenges people face "on the ground." I saw Henry completely come out of his head and into his heart and react to this stuff like, "Wow, it's unbelievable what these kids go through, the challenges they face in order to have a voice."
In Iquitos, Peruvian teens met with UNICEF supporters to share their experiences and propose solutions for preserving the environment and stopping violence against children.
What impressed your son most about his time in Peru?
ELIZABETH SMITH: The thing that most struck him was that UNICEF is focusing so much on reaching young adults and empowering kids to change the future. He saw these adolescents talking about how the future has to be different, how they want to end corporal punishment. He really got it that these kids are trying to change things in Peru at the community level. It moved out of the policy realm for him into the emotional realm. It deeply touched him.
Part of what was so ideal about taking this trip with our kids was that so many programs UNICEF supports in Peru identify adolescents as part of the solution.
Part of what was so ideal about taking this trip with our kids was that so many programs UNICEF supports in Peru identify adolescents as part of the solution. So much of what UNICEF is doing there is empowering youth to take an active role in addressing these issues. Seeing that made such an impression on our teenage sons. Both of them talked about how strong the sense of community is — these kids were so aligned on being an active part of addressing the issues.
UNICEF field visitor Gabriel Slavin spoke on-air with the teen hosts of Habla Huambrillo, a radio program in Belén, Peru. The program, which reaches 360,000 children and adolescents under the age of 18 throughout the Loreto region, discusses public policy and encourages young people to get involved in local issues that matter to them.
They have a radio program that is totally staffed by adolescents and they had both Henry and David on air. For them to see that these kids had come together to produce a radio broadcast addressing issues and trying to reach the population was very impressive.
They have a radio station that is totally staffed by adolescents and they had both Henry and David on air.
The next thing they knew, our kids were in a booth with a microphone in front of their face. I was really proud of how articulate and genuine they both were. It was clear that they were speaking from the heart. Sherrie and I were in the back, thinking "How are they going to handle this?" And they handled it beautifully.
In the indigenous district of Loreto, poverty afflicts more than 35% of the population. Of Loreto's more than 1 million inhabitants, 40% are children and adolescents. UNICEF is working with communities, families and the government of Peru to place human rights, gender equity and environmental sustainability at the center of policy and programming.
Do you think they came away with a formula for what spurs adolescents like themselves to action, or any kind of understanding of what they can do at home in the United States to be actively engaged in their communities?
ELIZABETH SMITH: Henry's already taken up leadership and service positions at his college. He's writing for the newspaper there. He's part of the Democrats' Club; he's getting involved.
With everything that's going on in the world and in the United States right now, sometimes there's this helpless feeling of "what are we going to inherit?" I think being with these kids made our sons see that if they're not happy with the present conditions here in the U.S., the future is something they can form. They can make it different. Our sons were moved by how the adolescents in Peru view themselves as change agents, and how they are really supported by UNICEF.
I think being with these kids made our sons see that if they're not happy with the present conditions here in the U.S., the future is something they can form. They can make it different.
A field visit to see UNICEF's work in action is "a wonderful opportunity to give your child," says UNICEF USA board member Sherrie Rollins Westin.
I've traveled on many field visits but none have compared to the two I took with my children. Having the opportunity to see life through your child's eyes just makes it so much more profound. It's an incredible experience.
I've been on the UNICEF USA Board of Directors for 16 years. I've been on many field visits. But none have compared to the two I took with my children. Seeing life through your child's eyes just makes it so much more profound.
ELIZABETH SMITH: Both kids have had means and privileges. We've always talked about how "to whom much is given, much is expected." After this trip, I really feel like my son owns that. It's part of his future now, and not just on an intellectual level. You can give money, but it is equally important to give your time and your awareness.
Top photo: Boys from the Urco Miraño community in Peru's Mazan district wore traditional dress at a welcome ceremony for visitors from UNICEF. All photographs by Veronica Lanza for UNICEF USA.