by Shobana Muratee
On Friday, May 3 was held the annual UNICEF USA’s Southwest Regional Office at Post Oak Hotel, attended by 390 guests and friends of UNICEF. The black-tie fundraiser set a new high netting $1 million to fund UNICEF’s lifesaving work toward children and to raise awareness of global and domestic issue that need help. Nearly 15,000 children under the age of 5 die each day from preventable causes due to lack of care and proper nutrition. UNICEF has helped save the lives of 122 million children around the world since 1990.
Chaired by Cheryl Byington, Mary Ann McKeithan, Beth Wolff and Hallie Vanderhider who also served as major donors hosted the elegant and impactful event. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner who spoke briefly on the occasion stressed on the immediate need to support the cause of children.
In an honorary segment, UNICEF USA CEO and President Caryl M. Stern presented honorees and Helenka Pantaleoni Humanitarian Award recipients Susan and Dan Boggio with a balloon surprise from the actress Téa Leoni, who happens to be the granddaughter of UNICEF USA’s founding director, Helenka Pantaleoni. Caryl shared her experiences with children and narrated inspiring stories about them that showed the power of sharing that a child has. She spoke about the UNICEF Kid Power, which she said connects children’s actions to real world impact.
Lead support came from the Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation of $100,000 (matching fund) pledged toward UNICEF Kid Power, an interactive program where children through activities help provide lifesaving nutrition that UNICEF delivers to severely malnourished children. The children to children program is designed to generate empathy and teach children to make a difference.
Auctioneer Stephen Lewis set the momentum for the evening as he brought the gathering towards the seven-digit figure by offering impressive live auction packages including a week-long Kenyan safari, earrings from NINI Jewels and tickets to Elton John’s legendary Oscars Viewing Party in Los Angeles. The LA event proved to be the evening’s most sought-after prize.
Houston TV host and celebrity Deborah Duncan emceed the program with her usual grace. Known for her spontaneity in singing, she livened the evening as she sang “Happy Birthday” to long-time UNICEF supporter Bashar Kalai. The Garden State Guys, a New Jersey-style group of crooners provided a special Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons tribute.
Boggio couple spoke at length of their relationship with UNICEF in the USA. The couple has started a generous push for the organization, through a leadership gift and unrestricted funds, to address child protection, education, trafficking, violence against girls, the Rohingya refugee crisis and expanding UNICEF Kid Power in Houston.
Margaret Alkek Williams did the honors of presenting the humanitarian award bearing her name to Sue Smith and Lester Smith, posthumously, joined by Lester’s son, Stuart Smith. An emotional video tribute to Lester followed. Sue very deftly lifted the vibe with a few playful anecdotes about her late husband, which all enjoy immensely.
Then was the time to party! UNICEF NextGen supporters began entering into the ballroom to get the ‘Silent Disco” after-party started. Silent Events provided the entertainment through the evening.