The COVID-19 pandemic has made UNITERs — UNICEF's front-line advocates here in the U.S. — more determined than ever to support our work around the world while helping their own communities. They are health workers, advocacy champions, and educators who meet the daily challenges faced by their community and give hope. In honor of National Volunteer Week, we introduce three remarkable individuals who have worked hard to make a difference both here and abroad throughout the pandemic.
Writing a book to help kids understand the coronavirus pandemic
It was at the beginning of the lockdown back in March 2020, when UNITER Dr. Renee Kleris had the idea for a book to help children understand the new reality we were all experiencing. Dr. Kleris, a Washington, D.C. physician who specializes in pediatrics and immunology, recalls that several friends and family members asked her for advice on how to explain the novel coronavirus to their kids. "I wanted to talk about the changes we've all experienced in a non-scary way," she says.
Kleris teamed up with her friends, fellow health care workers Dr. Katherine Clorridge and Dr. Rebecca MacDonell-Yilmaz and illustrator Catherine Wilson, to create "We Stand Together, Just Six Feet Apart." "The reason why we wanted to work on this together is that we all wanted to do what we could to carry others through this challenging time," she says.
Although "some kids were disappointed there were no dinosaurs in the book," others became instant fans. One of her friend's daughters even started using her mom's phone to post public service announcements on the importance of handwashing.
"You can't anticipate all the questions kids will ask," says Kleris. "They have a lot, but this can at least serve as a conversation starter." Since the book is aimed at kids, the book's authors wanted the profits to support an organization that's working to end the pandemic, but also one that puts the needs of children front and center. That's why they settled on UNICEF.
The brain is hardwired to let us know what could go wrong, but this book focuses on the positives. — Dr. Renee Kleris
"I didn't fully appreciate the reach of UNICEF until I was in college and I decided to go into health care," she says. "That was when I saw what UNICEF does, not just for vaccines and children's physical health, but also for mental health, education and nutrition — just caring for the complete person."
Not only is the book a piece of history, it also sends a message of hope. "The brain is hardwired to let us know what could go wrong, but this book focuses on the positives," says Kleris. The book's mission is "not about gloom and doom, but to spark ideas for how to stay healthy, happy and kind during COVID times." The message it relays is about stepping outside ourselves, commemorating what we've been through and seeing ourselves as members of a community, facing this challenge together.
Advocating for UNICEF in a virtual environment
Not even the pandemic could get in the way of David Krause, from Minneapolis, scheduling a record ten legislative meetings with Minnesota elected officials during UNICEF USA's first-ever virtual Advocacy Week in March 2021. "It was wonderful to do it virtually," he says. "Exhausting since you still have your day job, but worth it."
A 30-year veteran of the community banking world, Krause says he has "come to understand the importance of advocacy, of sharing with one's elected officials the work UNITERs do for the community and to help kids around the world."
One Advocacy Week highlight for Krause was meeting with a new staffer to Congressman Dean Phillips (D-MN), who had not been familiar with UNICEF's work. The Congressman ended up co-signing the Keeping Girls in School Act. Victories like that make it all worthwhile for Krause. "At first I thought, what difference am I truly going to make with a ten-minute meeting? I concluded that, without me doing my part, the people on the other end would probably never hear about what UNICEF was doing."
At first I thought, what difference am I truly going to make with a ten-minute meeting? I concluded that, without me doing my part, the people on the other end would probably never hear about what UNICEF was doing. — David Krause
Krause has never been afraid of hard work and a challenge. He first got involved with advocacy work when he signed himself up to run the Boston Marathon for UNICEF. As he asked friends and colleagues to donate to his fundraiser, he started to "dig deeper into what UNICEF is all about."
"You see UNICEF out there in the news, but I could never tell you what exactly they do until I started educating myself," he explains. "I realized that if I want people to donate and to inspire them to take action, I have to tell them the whole story." So he put together his own UNICEF elevator speech and started giving presentations in his community, emphasizing UNICEF's relentlessness in helping children and speaking about UNICEF staff climbing mountains and trekking through jungles to provide polio vaccines to children. Finally, one day, he attended his first UNICEF advocacy meeting: the rest is history.
Helping at-risk populations get the vaccinations they need to stay safe
As the child of refugees, Janice Ly has heard about UNICEF all her life, but it wasn't until she was studying public health and international relations at the University of Utah that she realized UNICEF's impact, reaching almost half of the world's children under the age of 5 with lifesaving vaccines. This ignited her passion and interest in vaccine equity.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ly says she knew she "had to help somehow," so she started volunteering with at-risk populations in Salt Lake City. She performed symptom screenings and testing at homeless shelters and made home visits to reach people unable to travel.
In her professional life as a clinical researcher working with local health departments and FEMA, Ly has also worked on the development of two COVID-19 vaccines, recruiting and screening volunteer study participants, assisting in vaccine administration, and conducting follow-up procedures to ensure the safety of study participants. Both vaccines have since been approved. What's she's most focused on now, in her work with UNICEF UNITE, is educating people to clear up any fears they might have of getting vaccinated.
I want people to know that vaccines are safe, effective and critically important for us all to return to the lives we had before the pandemic. — Janice Ly
For World Immunization Week, Ly and other volunteers are working on a webinar addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. "I want people to know that vaccines are safe, effective and critically important for us all to return to the lives we had before the pandemic," she says.
She is also keen on fostering discussions on the social and racial effects of the pandemic, by providing safe spaces for people to open up about their emotions on the recent hate crimes directed at the AAPI community. What she loves most about UNITE is working on service projects with people of all ages. "Not only does working with these people give me hope, it passes on hope to others," she says. "That's uplifting, especially in these times."
Do you want to become a front-line advocate here in the U.S. on behalf of children around the world? Do you want to join other UNICEF supporters in amplifying children's voices and effecting change here and abroad? Join UNICEF UNITE to volunteer in your community.
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Top photo: Stephen, 4, and Ella, 6, read "We Stand Together, Just Six Feet Apart," a picture book written by UNICEF UNITE volunteer Dr. Renee Kleris and colleagues to help children understand the coronavirus pandemic. UNITERs are UNICEF's front-line advocates in the U.S., who give their time and talents to support UNICEF's work for children around the world, and to make a difference in their own communities. © photo courtesy of Dr. Renee Kleris