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'We have a theory of change': Orphan doctor on helping children, her inspiration & how she got her trademark blue glasses

'We have a theory of change': Orphan doctor on helping children, her inspiration & how she got her trademark blue glasses

Dr. Jane Aronson was travelling abroad when she realized the need for programs for children to get proper healthcare and education. But she wanted to involve the surrounding communities as well so local men and women could be part of the process and create change. Her organization, Worldwide Orphans, has been doing just that since it was founded in 1997.

I spoke to Dr. Aronson in December 2017 and wrote an article about her philanthropic spirit, what inspired her blue glasses campaign and why she’s thinks it’s important to empower young women. The article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Lifestyles Magazine.

Here is some more from my interview with her.

How did you get started?

I’m a pediatrician by training. I grew up, so to speak, in my medical training during the early 1980s, when AIDS was really the dominant medical disease that we all were trained on and fought against. I was very touched by global health issues early on in my career. I went into medicine and was an AIDS physician for 20 years and during that time actually I started to travel abroad and lots of families were adopting children during the 1990s and the 2000s.

Those kids who were adopted had a lot of infectious diseases issues initially when they were brought home from different countries. I was travelling to orphanages...That coalesced into a practice that was specific to adoption, once I started seeing all of these thousands of kids from different countries—China and Russia and Bulgaria and Vietnam and Cambodia.

Where did the idea for Worldwide Orphans come from?

I started to feel like there was a better way to learn about the kids in their own countries. I wanted to figure out a way to change kids’ lives in those countries before they got sick or died, actually, and not all of them clearly were going to be adopted. All the goods thing that I could do were wonderful, like the adoption piece was so incredible, that I could feel useful to families, help educate them, and helping the kids to get all the wonderful healthcare that exists in the U.S.— but then I thought what about all the kids left behind? That made me start WWO in 1997. We’ve been in likely 20 countries at different points due to my healthcare interest in different countries and then we did different kinds of programs in different countries depending on invitations that we might have had to do work with orphans.

You were invited to several countries after speaking about health issues during your travels. What did you do when you got to those places?

Lots of doctors in different countries didn’t know about what medicines were necessary or how to diagnose things. We would go and we would teach. I taught in El Salvador or Nicaragua or Guatemala or China. That led me to sort of understand the issues better. Then those invitations came. It was like, what do we do in those countries? That was the next question. I could study and learn what the kids needed, but what can we do for them?

A lot of the early work was around helping kids get better nutrition and then diagnosing infectious diseases that could be treated with medicine, like parasites, and also helping to educate doctors and nurses in other countries so that they could actually be taught just like we were.

We used to always think we were such smarty pants, right? But these were really smart doctors and nurses who just hadn’t been exposed to an education where they could shine as professionals. And I began to fall in love with all these doctors and nurses and psychologists and social workers from different countries because I thought, “Oh my god, these people are really amazing. They’re so smart. All they need is new books or new journals or classes.” And then we started bringing in these different professionals for specialties and they would do trainings in different countries.

What keeps you going these days? There’s a lot of bad news out there.

I wonder somedays how to keep going. It’s a hard world.

It’s very hard. You want to care. You want to make the world a better place and sometimes it feels like your powerless, but you’re not. This is what makes my work so special. It’s such an easy question to answer: I feel like I was born to do service. From the time I was very little I wanted to be a doctor—three years old. I had a bee hospital when I was a little kid where I would take insects and bees...and I put them in little boxes for my mother’s jewelry and I would feed them sugar water. I wanted to do service. I wanted to help.

The work I do today is not much different than having a bee hospital. The work I do with children who are disadvantaged, vulnerable, at risk—and families who are also at risk, people in the community who have really not had an education or access to medical care, and psychological support.

The foundation is focused on education, access to medical care and psychological support and we do it through the toy library.

You want to make the world a better place and sometimes it feels like your powerless, but you’re not. This is what makes my work so special...I feel like I was born to do service. From the time I was very little I wanted to be a doctor—three years old.
— Dr. Jane Aronson

Can you explain a bit more about the Elements of Play program and the toy library?

We really excel in an area that’s about helping adults learn to play. We do it through play, music and theatre and dance and sport and reading.

Adults—think about it for yourself, your parents—who really knows how to play? Do people really naturally know how to play? I don’t think so.

I think a lot of people get bored with playing. We don’t know about play. It’s not just about people living in developing nations. It’s right here in the United States of America. All over our country, in poor settings especially, people might be depressed or sad or struggling to get an education and to get a job and to have a better life for their children and their families. We excel in helping people feel hopeful and feel that they can made a difference in their own lives as well as others.

We specialize in toy libraries. The trademark is Element of Play. We have 45 toy libraries and we’re working in five countries abroad—Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Serbia and Haiti—and we have the toy libraries in these countries, plus we’re also now in the USA.

Why should there be an emphasis on helping girls and women?

Everything's about women. If we could just educate all the women who decided to make an adoption plan for their kids, around the world, because they were forced by poverty... If we could just have educated those young women, given them classes, they would do well in school and then have jobs and they may make choices about whether to delay childbearing... and then be in their 20s, or late 20s early 30s, and decide then to have a family get married have kids. Then they would have already arrived in that point in their lives where they would have the strength to make their own decisions to govern their own lives.

That's what we're part of and I feel like the WWO is not just about children. Our mission is to take care of vulnerable children, at-risk kids, but we're really in the community trying to move the needle...so that women can be in charge of their lives and really strong as parents and adults in their communities.

What sparked your blue glasses campaign? And where did you get them?!

I bought them in the summer in 2000 when I opened my pediatric adoption medicine practice on the Upper East side of Manhattan. I saw them at this wonderful eyewear place called Friedrich’s Optik on 58th and Park. I saw in the window the blue glass frame...And I fell in love with them. I looked at them and I said, “You know what? That’s how I want to look.”

That was 17 years ago. I was actually adopting a baby from Vietnam. I didn’t really know what the destiny of the glasses would be. But I knew it was a moment for me where I felt that my destiny was really opening up and the glasses would be powerful for me.

Go forward to mid-2000s, I was in Ethiopia. We had already opened the foundation in 1997, three years prior to me buying the glasses, and I met a three-year-old (girl). Her name is Mahlet. I was jumping rope. I’d like to say I’m an athlete...but I was doing double dutch and I was concentrating, because you need to concentrate with double dutch, right? It was kind of a nice spring day in Ethiopia and someone’s pulling on my coat, trying to get my attention and I was hellbent on not tripping and falling and hurting myself.

I turned and I looked and it’s little Mahlet, who I’d just been playing with inside the orphanage, and she’s wearing pipe cleaner glasses that look just like mine. She looked at me and I looked at her and we saw the same thing. The glasses are magical.  You can see what children see through these glasses. And that power came to be that people really fell in love with the glasses and what they mean. There’s no other meaning, other than that. There are lots of stories but the real story is that Mahlit saw what I saw. We were at the same point in that moment.

What’s next for WWO?

We’re trying to launch the blue glasses campaign, $20 million to be raised by the end of 2020. And 2020 as you know is pretty good vision, and that will get thousands of toy libraries that could be everywhere in the world in cities all over the US where people could benefit from improving the growth of their community and their capacity and many more places around the world. We believe that toy libraries are the secret. They’re part of the theory of change that we can really strengthen communities. This is how it started.

What was one of the most memorable moments for you?

At our gala (last) year, we had Mya, she’s from Serbia, who we met as a youngster. We were able to help her get an education, graduate from middle school, high school then college. And then she got a masters degree. We brought her to the gala that night. She was celebrating her son’s first birthday and we were celebrating her masters degree in early childhood development. She’s an expert in preschool and early childhood education. Isn’t that amazing? That’s one example of many of the youngsters who we’ve helped support over the years who have become truly the heroes in the world.

We have a theory of change. We believe we can make communities more healthy, particularly in communities where there’s lots of trauma, impoverished places, where we can help teach adults early childhood development know how children think and feel, and then help decrease abuse and neglect.

We’re about mental health for the community, improving people’s ability to understand children, changing abuse so there’s less trauma and neglect in the community, helping kids to be successful and grow and be successful long term in their lives.

This interview has been condensed.

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