Q&A with Harry Leibowitz: his thoughts on fatherhood

Harry Leibowitz in Haiti
Harry Leibowitz with a child in Haiti

For Father’s Day, we want to take a few moments to honor Harry Leibowitz, the father of our organization. In 1996, Harry, recovering from surgery, came up with a powerful idea. He envisioned an award that would recognize people serving the population most in need of help: vulnerable children. He then founded the World of Children with the dream that it would one day be as prestigious as the Nobel Prize.

Over the past 16 years, Harry and co-founder and wife Kay, have dedicated their lives to this dream. Their leadership and lasting commitment to children has substantially impacted international programs, ensuring more children have access to vital medical care, quality education, nutritious food and more. Since 1998, they have led the way in recognizing 95 heroes serving children in 140 countries around the world.

A father and grandfather himself, Harry has traveled the world to visit our Honorees and the children in their programs. With Father’s Day coming up, we asked him to share his thoughts on being a father, starting a nonprofit and how to make a difference.

You’re the father of two children and grandfather of one. What has been one of the most rewarding things about being a father and grandfather?

Watching, over time, how you can very gently direct a child’s future by your example and imbue them with values (good and bad, of course).

The month of June gives us all the opportunity to honor our fathers. What would be your wish for fathers this Father’s Day?

That every father cared enough about his child/children to give them a hug and tell them how much he loves them.

In 1996 you founded the World of Children as a way to honor those who selflessly devote their lives to vulnerable children. As the father of this organization, how has your life been impacted or changed?

Immeasurably. What started out as an idea to support those who serve vulnerable children has totally altered my view of the world and the way it treats its children…it has now become the focus of everything I do and what I now realize I have stood for all my life…I just did not realize it until now.

Harry Leibowitz and Stephanie March in Ukraine
Harry and Celebrity Ambassador Stephanie March visit children in Ukraine

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start their own nonprofit?

Lots…but to be succinct:

1) It is easy to give money away, but very difficult to give it away well, so be disciplined.

2) It is easy to think you know it all, but there are people out there who are far smarter than you and have done it wrong and right, so study and learn first.

3) There are so many philanthropies out there now. Before starting another one and creating more overhead and competition, do your homework and make sure there isn’t someone out there doing what you want to do and partner with them.

Many of our Honorees are father figures to children who may not have fathers of their own. Why is having a strong male role model important for a child’s well-being and growth?

I don’t think it is about male or female. It is about being a role model in the broader sense. As I mentioned previously, children learn by mimicking and the people they mimic most are their family and their caregivers…if those people are cruel the chances are the child will be cruel…if they are disinterested chances are the child will copy that behavior and if they are loving and caring then the likelihood is that the child will mimic that.

Douglas Maclagan in Nepal
2009 Health Award Honoree Douglas Maclagan with a Nepalese child in his program, Child Welfare Scheme

You are going to be visiting Douglas Maclagan in Nepal in a few months whose programs help over 40,000 children in Nepal each year. How do you think he has played a role in bettering the lives of children in his program?

He has created a safe haven and given hope to many of the most disenfranchised children in Nepal. I will have a much better sense of the impact after the visit, however.

A child soldier himself, Anywar Ricky Richard has become a father figure and role model to other children abducted by the LRA. Do you think it’s important for these children to connect with someone who has gone through the same thing?

I am not trained as a psychologist…but from my personal experience I can say that I believe it is the other way around…it is easier for the CAREGIVER to connect with the children if she/he has faced the same/similar exigencies. That caregiver will know the emotions, the hurt/pain, that they have seen and felt.

Chaim Peri with Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz
Kay and Harry with 1998 Honoree Chaim Peri during a trip to Israel

For 35 years, Dr. Chaim Peri has worked to educate immigrant and disadvantaged youth in Israel. He has been a father figure to generations of these troubled teens. How has his work grown since we first awarded him in 1998?

In part because of our recognition Dr. Peri’s work got noticed outside of Israel and he has become a model/mentor to programs in at least 4 other countries now. When we visited him in 2011, we met his Executive Director…she sat with us and cried when she discussed Dr. Peri…she had been a ward of Yemin Orde as a child and grew up there. Her words: “Dr. Peri is so much more than a father to me…he is my guardian angel…he made me whole…he transformed me into a human being…”

This Father’s Day, help us celebrate extraordinary fathers like Harry. Share an inspiring story about a father in your life in the comments below.

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