Dr. Jane Aronson’s organization is saving lives in Bulgaria, Ethiopia Haiti, Vietnam, Serbia and Ethiopia with 150 indigenous employees building sustainable cultures for early childhood development. Work, for her, is about more than having a job. It’s about creating change—and having fun while doing it, she says.
The founder and CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation explains that working with children has always been her calling. Her nonprofit organization (@wworphans), which transforms the lives of orphans around the globe, provides children with local, culturally competent educational and medicinal support so they can grow to become independent, productive members of their communities and eventually of the workforce.
Dr. Aronson discussed with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti her deep empathy for children, her foundation’s successes and how corporations are now getting involved.
Ambition for Change
Dr. Jane Aronson: I’m always excited to talk about my work because it’s so much fun. My work is not work, and I don’t know if too many people can make that claim, right?
I grew up in a pretty tumultuous time: I was born in 1951. My years in school were dominated by some cataclysmic and horrific political moments in history, which include the assassinations of our president in 1963, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
These were profoundly important parts of my growing up. I was very sensitive about the world. I had a lot of interest in politics in school. I was the class vice president my junior year; I was class president my senior year. I was aspirational and ambitious.
I really believe I can make a difference in the world and I felt that early on in my childhood. I always felt a sense of mission. There’s not a moment in my life starting when I can remember back that I didn’t keep notes about things that I could do to make things better, more healthy.
Empathy for Children
I ended up being a teacher, but teaching was not my first goal … A lot of my external community work was at preschools for disabled kids. I started as an assistant at a school for disabled children. It was called Saginaw Children’s Hospital. It was a prototype of how you would build, create and manage a school where you have kids with autism and kids with behavioral issues, emotional disturbance and unaligned medical conditions.
I enjoyed my work as a teacher and I taught all grade levels. I knew a lot about the fun of being a child and I think I really still am pretty childlike. I think my major in psychology exposed me to how children think and how they feel. Probably the major thing for me and my work has always been that I identify with loss and hurt and I identify with struggle. Children have a wonderful openness and vulnerability that is really what makes them so sweet and lovable.
A Passion for Healing
I always wanted to be a doctor—that was clear from the time I was 3 years old. I’m one of those people who had a calling.
My great uncle Joe was a physician. He specialized in tuberculosis research and treatment and infectious diseases. He worked with American Indians in the United States during the ’30s and then he went off to Africa. He traveled widely. He was a very, very unusual and inspirational guy. He was my role model.
I went to medical school and graduated from the UMDNJ School of Osteopathic Medicine in New Jersey. I’m very proud and privileged to have achieved that goal. I feel probably the greatest thing that I’ll ever feel that I’ve achieved in my life will be being a parent and a doctor.
I practiced medicine for 30 years. My training was as a pediatrician. I also did a fellowship in infectious diseases and was an AIDS specialist for probably about 15 years.
I segued into adoption medicine as a specialty, and that was really as a result of my infectious-diseases expertise. A lot of the kids who I saw initially when they arrived in the United States with their families have been exposed to tuberculosis, hepatitis. Some of the kids had parasite infections, skin infections, bacterial infections, early exposures to diseases—like chicken pox and whooping cough—and a lot of things that we don’t ordinarily see here in the United States.
Then I worked on an Indian reservation, and in Mexico as a general physician and infectious-diseases specialist. Then I ended up in adoption medicine again, gradually more and more Russian adoptions. These wonderful experiences I had in my early career were very much a part of me growing to be an expert in the area of adoption medicine, which really is international health.
In 2000, I created a private practice that was completely devoted to the practice of adoption medicine—International Pediatric Health Services. I really saw myself as a global practitioner, from my travels and from patients I was taking care of.
Transforming Children’s Lives
In the midst of learning all about children from developing countries and all of the issues they had—malnutrition, failure to thrive, developmental delays, behavioral problems, processing disorders, attachment disorder, all the infectious diseases—I realized that I could take good care of the children being adopted in my own community and provide them with every medical technology and expertise that’s possible in the world.
There are hundreds of millions of children in the world living a marginal and tragic life. Many of them are institutionalized—in the street, in refugee camps, trafficked. It’s really an outrage and a tragedy, and I said, “You know what? I have to do something that really makes this change, and now.”
That’s when I started Worldwide Orphans. I really felt strongly that I needed to help the kids that were left behind. These are kids who will never have permanency, never have families—an unjust existence. A child has the right to have everything—good medical care, nutrition, shelter, the ability to dream, have fun, have a great education and be a successful citizen in their own community in their own world.
We’re in five countries—Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Haiti, Serbia and Vietnam—at this point and are deeply involved in some incredibly creative, very creative, innovative programs. We have an almost $6-million operating budget. In the next few months, we’re going to have 15 full-time employees here in the office. We have over 150 employees in these five countries.
Respecting Communities’ Cultures
We’re about really being in the community, hiring people from the community and growing a real stronghold of professionalism. Each country has different programs. We tailor-made each of our programs based on what the culture is, what the need is, what the language is, and the program becomes very much organic.
For example, in China, when we collaborated with an adoption agency that wanted to do humanitarian work, we trained the staff in the orphanage to reach the children and to serve the children better so that they could be mobilized.
That’s really how we’ve always gone about doing things. In Vietnam, for instance, we have family resource centers. We’re helping people who have been affected by AIDS and HIV. We’re collaborating with the ministries—local, national government and other nongovernmental organizations, community-based organizations, universities, social-work universities, teachers, educators. We have a camp in Vietnam to develop leadership skills.
What we do is really address the issues of diversity in communities all over the world. What we’re interested in long-term is meeting whatever the needs are for children in each country. As those needs change, we change. We can morph. We’re nimble and we have a lot of skillsets. We are based in the science of child development. That’s all I live and breathe all day long. All I think about.
We were the first to provide the orphans with anti-retroviral therapy in both Vietnam and Ethiopia. I personally purchased those medicines and we sent them off to those countries. Then within a couple of years, the medicines became available free.
We hired wonderfully smart HIV experts. They weren’t HIV experts when we hired them. They were pediatricians, and we set up mentoring programs. We brought in the HIV/AIDS specialists from Columbia University, where I did my fellowship. We had training sessions and conferences. Some of those trainings were supported by Bristol-Myers Squibb.
In Addis, we have an academy with 362 kids who are being educated from kindergarten to fourth grade. This school is a mixture of HIV-infected children from local orphanages and impoverished children from the community who are healthy. We provide them with two nutritional meals each day and an education that’s top-notch. We got a headmaster and a head teacher who are so eager to be innovative, modern and advance the teachers, so their teachers are proud of the curriculum.
Then we have Serbia, an orphanage in Kragujevac. We thought it would be a wonderful thing to get involved in an orphanage where we can help the kids find their roots, to go back and see where their families were and use photography.
We did this “Back to the Future” program and we have kids now in college. One of them, Maya, has graduated from college with a degree in early childhood development, and she’s teaching preschool now. Isn’t that amazing?
These are great kids who we’re providing with a college advancement and assistance program, and we’re going to expand this program in the coming years. This is what it’s all about. These are kids who lived their whole young lives in an orphanage and had wonderful social workers and psychologists who help support them.
They have their GEDs and then we mediate. Then they go to college and have a successful career.
Strengthening Communities, Strengthening Families
Luke Visconti: Are your plans for the future to grow the number of countries that you’re in or just to really grow roots?
Dr. Aronson: For now and for the last few years, we’ve just gone deeper and deeper and deeper. We added a country two years ago after the earthquake in Haiti. Now we have a youth training program there, training youth in the principles of early childhood development.
They’re becoming the sort of the sentinels in Kenscoff, which is a mountainous community outside of Port-au-Prince. It’s a very impoverished community, agricultural, and it’s a close-knit community. We’re training these youths; they become known in the community so that if someone is so poor that they’re thinking of abandoning their children, they’ll go to one of the kids and they’ll end up saying to him, “Can you help us? We heard that Worldwide Orphans Foundation has the ability to help people who are in desperate straits.” We’ll help them with the resources so they won’t abandon their child in an orphanage.
We’re helping to strengthen the community and strengthen the ability of people to be independent, to secure and grow their families—family strengthening. It’s reunification and it’s orphan prevention.
Visconti: You’ve moved up to now where you’re preventing the orphan from becoming an orphan.
Dr. Aronson: We’re going to do more of that. We’re hell-bent on creating all kinds of wonderful tools to get involved in the community, not just … in an orphanage enriching children’s lives, which has been great. Now we’re secretly seeping into the community and providing all these wonderful opportunities for people to come in and to go out.
Gaining Corporate Support
Visconti: How does my audience get involved?
Dr. Aronson: We have a full staff at our offices in Maplewood, including a volunteer coordinator. We also have a gala every year where people can volunteer to get involved with the gala. There are opportunities for people to attend events.
We have various levels of corporate sponsors. For the gala each year, we have anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000. We have each year anywhere from 650 to 700 people at the gala event. This year we raised $1.7 million. We have a huge celebrity presence with a great red carpet, and we also have a wonderful live auction and an assignment auction with great gifts and great entertainment.
It’s on Nov. 12. We’re going to honor the orphan. What that means is that we’re going to interview some really surprisingly interesting people. This year we will film individuals who have lost their parents early in their life and then went on to be filled with a sense of purpose, a sense of drive and success in life.
We’re looking at this in an almost superhero sort of way because if you look at the superheroes like Spiderman, Batman and Superman, they all lost their parents early on in life and then they decided that they have inner resiliency and a sense of purpose to do good things for the world.
We’re saluting the orphan. We’re not feeling sorry for orphans. We celebrate the character of an orphan.
Visconti: What corporate sponsors do you have right now?
Dr. Aronson: Over the years we’ve been very lucky in the financial sector. We also had People and Glamour because I won the woman-of-the-year award in ’09. We’ve had a variety of family foundations but we haven’t really gotten yet into the kind of sponsorships that I would love. I would love for the event to be underwritten by one company, companies that maybe have some connection to children.
We have a Merck grant for $1 million for our academy and we had Bristol-Myers Squibb money for our metric program for HIV training for doctors and nurses. But we want to look to new industry. Where are the growing industries today? That’s what we want to be.
To volunteer for the Worldwide Orphans, contact (973) 763-9961 and ask for Regina Cariddi. For sponsorship and other information, email email@example.com.
— Luke Visconti