A first-time visitor flying into Maputo International Airport on the southern tip of Mozambique may notice something peculiar about this country.
Aside from its cultural relationship with Portugal (in Africa, only Angola professes more of its population to be fluent in Portuguese), the country is experiencing what a sociologist might describe as a “dramatic demographic change.” In the case of Mozambique, this means that the population—still reeling from a bloody drawn-out civil war and the onset of the AIDS virus—is one of the youngest in the world, with the CIA World Factbook placing the median age at just under 17 years old.
Mozambique, a coastal South African country a boat ride away from the neighboring island of Madagascar, is counted among the United Nation’s list of Least Developed Countries. For that reason, organizations such as UNICEF deploy “boots on the ground” to help curb deaths from preventable illnesses, promote education, and limit child exploitation through social protection programs.
A world away in May of last year, Ashley Prasad of Glencoe and Amy Brown of Park Ridge had been invited to Mozambique on a field visit. Both women had been UNICEF donors for quite some time, but had only just met over a recent dinner with UNICEF’s Managing Director of the Midwest Region, Casey Marsh, before leaving for Africa on Mother’s Day.
“When you donate, you can write checks all day, but it was never enough. Not that the money wasn’t enough, but it just never felt like we had done enough to make a difference,” Prasad says. “Writing a check seemed so removed from actually making a difference.”
In Mozambique, it became clear that Marsh was vetting them to chair a UNICEF program back home. She called it Young Ambassadors, and it had only just found its legs in the US, starting initially in Los Angeles. It was aimed at raising awareness through—traditionally, anyway—the least likely of conduits for change: 10- to 15-year-olds.
And yet what impacted them the most on their visit was being introduced to Radio Mozambique, a team comprised almost exclusively of young people who hosted talk shows and PSAs aimed at bringing awareness to issues affecting kids and the community at large. “They were so poised and hopeful for what their country could become,” says Brown. “You saw what kids could accomplish.”
“And having children ourselves, being moms, it really resonated with us,” adds Prasad.
Prasad and Brown returned home on a mission to bring the Young Ambassador program to the North Shore. Enlisting the help of Karen Citow as their third co-chair, the three women got to work. In September of last year, they started the group from scratch.
Originally, they had planned to cap the program at 30 kids, “but the program sold out in 24 hours,” says Prasad, an example of the North Shore youth’s interest in getting involved with humanitarian organizations even at a young age.
“I looked around at myself: at my family, my friends, my town, and at my life—and realized that I am so fortunate,” says Dillan Prasad, 14 years old. “More than 17,000 children under the age of 5 die every day of preventable causes. I joined the Young Ambassadors to be a part of the push to slash that figure.”
With such impassioned young people clambering to join, they added 10 more spots.
The co-chairs opened up their homes for the Sunday meetings, trading headquarters every month. At the opening get-together, they gave their young charges a goal to put in their crosshairs: eliminating MNT—Maternal/Neonatal Tetanus—altogether.
When it was first identified, MNT—which is caused when tetanus spores come into contact with open cuts during childbirth (potentially life-threatening for mother and child)—was afflicting the poorest of the poor in 58 countries. UNICEF and its partners cut it down to 24, with Madagascar being the latest to be removed from the list.
Starting last year, UNICEF’s Midwest chapter planned to raise $3 million over the course of two years to pay for the $1.80 vaccinations. Almost two-thirds of the way there, the Young Ambassadors—ostensibly founded on the idea of simply engaging the community at large—helped raise over $55,000 of it.
“[Young Ambassadors] is really important to us. It’s been a great program, especially to get behind this Midwest campaign,” says Casey Marsh. “All of the money that they raise, and the awareness and advocacy that they’re doing has a big impact on teaching people about MNT.”
What’s more, the Young Ambassadors have had the chance to actually live the role of an ambassador, introducing speakers from all over the world at the annual meeting at the New York Times building in New York City, and speaking one-on-one with people like Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF. While some of their ambassadors are aging out of the program, a substantial amount are coming back (28). There is currently a waiting list to join.
This fall they will be focusing on their trick-or-treat initiative (think orange boxes) and Prasad and Brown hope to set up channels so they can connect their ambassadors with people their age from Mozambique or the Central African Republic, which qualifies as a Level 3 emergency, the highest priority for UNICEF.
“I love seeing the difference UNICEF is making not only for the kids in these horrific situations but also for kids in every corner of the world by showing them how we can all be a part of finding these solutions,” says Lilly Brown, 15 years old. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”