Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, the newest UNICEF Ambassador, traveled to Panama for a firsthand look at how UNICEF helps children and families who have just made the dangerous trek through the Darién Gap.
Laurie Hernandez — Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, "Dancing With the Stars" champion, student — is a fierce advocate for children's rights.
As UNICEF's newest Ambassador, Hernandez joins a roster of high-profile advocates for children's rights worldwide including Sofia Carson, Selena Gomez, Lucy Liu and Justin H. Min, among others.
Recently, Hernandez traveled with teams from UNICEF USA and UNICEF Panama to the Lajas Blancas host community and Temporary Migration Reception Station (TMRS) in Panama's Darién province for a closer look at UNICEF's programming for children on the move.
Up to 1,500 migrants, including children, arrive daily at the Lajas Blancas TMRS after making their way on foot through the treacherous Darién jungle. Many are fleeing conflict, economic insecurity and other devastating circumstances in search of safety and a better life.
The Darién jungle is part of the larger Darién Gap, a region connecting North and South America that is one of the world's most dangerous migration routes. People who make the trek come from many countries including Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, China and Colombia. The U.N. estimates that 400,000 migrants will cross the Gap between Colombia and Panama in 2023, a surge from approximately 250,000 in 2022. Children under 5 now account for an estimated 20 percent of those making the journey.
UNICEF provides care and support for children crossing the Darién Gap
In Darién, UNICEF has established programming to support children and families on the move, including setting up a safe space for those who have experienced violence and abuse in the Darién jungle, as well as a Child-Friendly Space where children can socialize, enjoy storybooks and activities, and just be children again. These spaces play an important role in delivering psychosocial support and protecting the mental health of children and families on the move — something Hernandez is passionate about.
Safeguarding children's mental health is a priority
Hernandez has been a mental health advocate for years. It runs in her blood; Hernandez's mother is a social worker and therapist. Her sister is a therapist as well. Hernandez uses her platform as an Olympic athlete and "Dancing With the Stars" champion to dissolve stigma and initiate and create safe spaces for talking about mental health.
"The story of sport is about determination, courage and being brave and doing things while you're afraid," Hernandez told community leaders in Lajas Blancas. "But it's also about community and support.
"I have had times when I felt stuck or scared or mentally like I couldn't do it anymore, and that's where my community and my support system helped me through it," Hernandez continued. "You're building community here — one that has the power to help children."
In addition to operating the Child-Friendly Space and safe space for women and children, UNICEF is helping to deliver safe water in Darién, along with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services critical to protecting children and their families from dehydration and illness.
Working together to protect vulnerable children
“The number of children who travel through the Darién Gap is astounding,” said Hernandez. “Witnessing families with babies and small children arrive by boat after this frightening journey is a powerful reminder of the importance of UNICEF’s work on the ground, providing clean water and sanitation, safe spaces and psychosocial support.”
I am honored to be the newest UNICEF Ambassador. On World Refugee Day and beyond, I will advocate for all children to help ensure an equitable future. — Laurie Hernandez
“We are thrilled to welcome Laurie Hernandez to our family of UNICEF USA Ambassadors,” said Shelley Diamond, Chief Marketing Officer of UNICEF USA. “Since her Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, Laurie has proven to be a positive role model for children and adults alike and has become an outspoken advocate for children’s rights. On World Refugee Day, it is particularly powerful for Laurie to give a voice to children on the move and to help ensure all children are healthy, educated, protected and respected.”
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