UNICEF USA launches program to help kids in US, Minneapolis among first cities to commit

For more than 70 years, the U.S. affiliate of UNICEF has supported the global work of that U.N. agency, most of it focused on aiding children in developing countries. On Wednesday, amid overlapping domestic crises, UNICEF USA announced its first major program supporting children in the United States.

Michael Nyenhuis, UNICEF USA’s president and CEO, said his agency will be investing $1 million this year on an initiative to help U.S. cities become more child-friendly. He said Houston, Minneapolis and San Francisco are the first cities to commit to the program, with Prince George’s County in Maryland expected to follow soon.

"Children in our country don’t fare as well as children in other wealthy countries around the world, so we have a lot of work to do," Nyenhuis said.

"Then you magnify the reality of that with the COVID crisis and the issues of racial injustice, and you say, ‘Something’s wrong,’" he added. "The answer is probably best found at the municipal level rather than the federal level."

The initiative’s goal is to encourage cities to make themselves safer for children, and ensure there is equitable access to social programs, parks and playgrounds. Participating cities also will be urged to find ways for children to participate in civic life, for example through formation of an advisory council comprised of young people.

Wednesday’s announcement was timed to occur on International Youth Day.

UNICEF, founded in 1946, has devoted most of its efforts over the decades to children in developing countries who are disadvantaged by poverty, war, disease and disasters, although it occasionally has supported programs in industrialized countries.

In the United States, UNICEF supported children affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, helping reunite children with their families and providing school-in-a-box kits. More recently, UNICEF and UNICEF USA worked with U.S.-based non-governmental agencies to assist migrant children on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico.

UNICEF USA’s primary work over the years has been to promote and raise funds for UNICEF’s work in other countries, and it will continue to provide such support.

Nyenhuis said the new initiative will be its first ongoing program aimed at supporting American children across the country, though there have been temporary operations in specific areas of the U.S.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last year became the first U.S. mayor to join other mayors from around the world to sign a UNICEF-backed manifesto pledging to make their cities more child-friendly.

Turner, in a telephone interview, said he was excited to be connecting with the roughly 3,500 municipalities in 40 countries which are part of UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative.

"When it comes to establishing best practices and strategies to create safer, more inclusive cities for our children, this is an ideal network," he said.

He expressed particular concern about children from Black, Latino and other minority families.

"These communities of color were already on the margins, and the new shocks and stresses have pushed them even further," he said. "Children are the ones having to bear the brunt of all this."

UNICEF USA has selected several young people to be national youth advocates for the Child Friendly Cities Initiative. Among them is Rimsha Sayed, 19, who is heading into her sophomore year at the University of Houston and hopes to go on to medical school.

Sayed also hopes the city develops a school-based program to raise awareness among students about the dangers of human trafficking. She said it was not until her junior year in high school that she learned that Houston was a major hub for trafficking.