Tomorrow I will receive Ellis Island Medal of Honor. As a child of immigrants, Ellis Island and its history rest close to my heart. For the more than 20 million people who passed through its gates (including my parents and grandparents who arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs), Ellis Island represented the end of a long arduous journey and the beginning of their quest for freedom and the opportunity to lead better lives. These millions built our nation into what it is today, and I am proud to be part of a nation that benefits from their determination.
Before coming to the United States, my family endured many hardships. My maternal grandmother grew up in a small farming village in what was then known as White Russia (where Belarus is today). Her family was forced out of their home by the Czarist Pogroms, and they subsequently journeyed 1,600 miles to France. My grandmother told me that it took them over a year to make the trek, and they suffered terribly. Her younger sister and older brother both died en route and her mother became extremely ill, passing away shortly after their arrival in France.
My maternal grandfather was similarly displaced by the Russian Empire and forced to endure a life-threatening journey in search of a new home. His family and others from their small Yiddish community in Poland set out on foot to Romania. They were soon forced to leave from there as well, and began a second trek to France where he met my grandmother and they were soon married. They later made their final long journey to the United States.
I grew up with humble beginnings in Brooklyn. Throughout World War II and into the early 1950s, my family and I lived in an old bungalow on Coney Island where ten other families shared the common bathroom facilities. I worked long hours as a teenager, developing a personal appreciation for other children born into challenging circumstances.
As an adult, while recovering from cancer surgery in 1996, I was reflecting on my childhood. Watching the announcements for the Pulitzer Prize on television, I realized that there were awards for art and literature, science and peace, and film and entertainment; however, nobody recognized those individuals who were committed to helping vulnerable and disenfranchised children.
This epiphany led to the establishment of the World of Children. Our mission is to recognize the world’s most effective child advocates and elevate and fund their programs. The World of Children has now touched the lives of millions of children. Since 1998, we have invested $4.8 million in 90 individuals helping children throughout the globe.