Two Classic reFIREEs Bring Prestige and Resources to Children’s Leaders Internationally
Money on Monday: Treasure of a Different Kind. Important in These Difficult Times
Harry Leibowitz was 14 when his 46-year-old father died.
Not long afterward, he and his family were in serious economic trouble.
The sheriff repossessed the furniture in their Coney Island, NYC tenement apartment. Young Harry went to work to save and support his family and later went on to a PhD in statistics, ultimately becoming a Brand Manager at Procter and Gamble, and subsequently the head of his own company. He thought he knew children’s hardship and poverty, but his world travels as a corporate leader showed him otherwise.
Today Harry and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz— who laughingly say they are in “reviverment,” having married five years ago—
are preparing to give several hundred thousand dollars
to recipients of the 2008 World of Children Awards World of Childlren on
November 13, at the UNICEF offices in New York.
Now 67 and 62, Harry and Kay are eager, filled with energy and love and passion for their work and for each other. How did these two corporate leaders, Kay was number two at Victoria's Secret when she retired, find each other and build Harry’s dream of a “Pulitzer Prize” for leaders saving abused and battered children based on work he had already been doing?
Mark Freedman calls people like Harry and Kay encore workers: people who have found work that matters in the second half of life. His book, “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the second Half of Life” describes an impulse similar to Harry’s for thousands if not millions of boomers. Freedman goes on to propose that such an impulse by millions of longer and healthier living boomers will positively change the nature of work and society. I think Freedman is completely correct. And I think there is something even more profound than just finding work that matters, I think there is an intangible urge to let one’s inner brilliance shine forth—a deep necessity to reFIRE. As Harry quipped the other day, “I just couldn’t imagine playing shuffle board in Florida for the rest of my life.”
Like many great ideas, Harry’s came to him in a flash of brilliance.
His insight was inspired by three influences: his own boyhood poverty and tragedy, his travels that showed him true poverty and unspeakable abuse suffered by children around the world, and his own life threatening illness. In 1996, Harry was struck with a second bout of cancer, this one life threatening. He had had thyroid cancer in '92. While recovering from prostrate surgery and feeling noooooooooo pain, Harry got the notion to create a “Pulitzer Prize” for change makers improving the lives of children. Specifically he wanted to bring the same kind of public value to those working diligently for children, but in obscurity, that the Pulitzer and the Nobel Peace Prizes bring to writers and scientists.
Two years of research and organizing, and a quarter of a million dollars of his own money later, the first World of Children Prize was given. And that is where the second reFIREment began as well. While still running Victoria's Secret, Kay Isaacson (WOC co-founder) attended the second awards, typically given in New York in November. Kay’s story is much different from Harry’s. She was the daughter of a fighter pilot who ended as a general, lived internationally and generally had a secure if peripatetic life. What she saw was her mother regularly volunteering in hospitals. At the Limited, her boss was adamant that executives give back. And as she said, “once you have a broad vision you can’t ignore” what is under your nose. So Kay first fell in love with the mission of World of Children. But it was not love at first sight for her when it came to Harry. Although Kay has seen Harry at the awards ceremony, they actually met through their mutual massage therapist who recommended them to each other. Eventually Harry and
Kay fell in love with each other and now are reveling in their “reviverment” marriage.
Of their life together now, Kay says that giving back makes them joyful. They do some things typical of retirees: they travel and have simple interests, but The World of Children definitely is the “best thing we do.” And speaking of the WOC’s Board of Directors, she says, “They are all Boomers and all so giving and caring.”
One of the upcoming 2008 awardees is
- a former two-time kidnapped Ugandan boy soldier, who now in his 30s rehabilitates other boy soldiers.
- Another is a 12-year-old Iowa girl, who with other children has so far raised about $10,000,000, yes you read it right! $10,000,000 for post-Katrina kids.
- Then there is the Brazilian woman who rescues girls from sexual predation and poverty. Harry and Kay said they are “blown away “ by the caliber of this year’s awardees and by all previous 70 winners.
In answer to the question, what has this work meant to you, Harry said,
“I wonder what took me so long. It’s the feeling Kay and I get…whole new batteries for our bodies".
Last year, he said, one of the woman awardees came over to him with tears streaming down her cheeks. She put her arms around me and I was crying, too. She said, ‘All these years, I never thought anyone cared or noticed.’”
As he related this story to me, the three of us were pretty sniffly and misty eyed. I think they were touched again at how grateful they are to be privileged to do this work, bring recognition to extraordinary leaders around the world and bring them real financial support as well. But what got me was two fold: this is clearly a great program, doing necessary work, rescuing the most vulnerable. And I always get going with that scenario.
But I was thrilled and moved for them as well. How wonderful to heed your heart’s message and send your treasures into the world and receive the treasures of the world in return. Harry might chide himself, asking what took him so long. But when the message came, he listened and took action. And as a result, Harry and Kay have recieved personal and philanthropic happiness—not by just writing a check; doing your good works, so to speak, but by empowering others to enable the least of us.
I can’t wait to meet them in November and give them my big hugs as well—for noticing and for caring.