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Founders Of Childhelp Dedicated Their Lives To Fighting For Children

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

George Clooney fights to stop genocide in Sudan. Angelina Jolie pairs up with UNHCR to protect refugees worldwide. It is not unusual to hear about Hollywood celebrities giving high-profile support to social causes.

Back in the 1950s, however, most Hollywood stars didn't have the opportunity, willingness or communication tools to stand publicly for something they believed in.

In that way, Yvonne Fedderson and Sara O'Meara broke new ground.

The two stars of long-running sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, were sent on a government-sponsored goodwill tour to visit troops in Japan in 1959. What they saw changed their lives, and the lives of thousands of children. In Tokyo, they stumbled upon 11 children forced to live on the street. The shivering children had been shunned by society because they were born of American fathers.

The Hollywood stars snuck the children to safety into their comfortable hotel rooms. Word got out that the generous young women were sheltering children, and within three weeks, O'Meara and Fedderson had more than 100 children under their care. International Orphans Incorporated was born, and hundreds of children who had no hope had love and a home.

Politicians in Washington got wind of the two formidable women solving a humanitarian problem with sheer will and generosity, and knew instantly who to consult about the increasing number of Vietnamese-American children being born during the Vietnam War. The two women were flown to Washington, D.C., in 1966 and helped establish five orphanages, a hospital and a school for abandoned children in Vietnam.

In 1975, they organized Operation Baby Lift, when thousands of those children were flown right into the arms of adoptive parents back in the U.S. The women had identified a need.

Now 76, O'Meara says this was their life mission. Before long, California First Lady Nancy Reagan asked them to shift their focus on American children who were abused and neglected. The task was harder than expected, and not for the reasons you might think.

Child abuse and neglect were America's best-kept secret. Authorities -- even judges -- had to be taught it was happening in the first place. O'Meara and Fedderson's organization for orphans evolved into Childhelp, focusing solely on children suffering from abuse or neglect, which is still the mission today. More than seven million children have been helped through their efforts.

Social services had never heard of the concept of setting up a residential treatment facility, but the two pioneers had come too far to turn back. "After years of political work, we were finally able to acquire a license for younger children," Fedderson recalls. "We wanted to be able to turn the children around -- to break the cycle of abuse -- and not go through the juvenile delinquent phase."

The two have set up advocacy centers and residential treatment facilities all over the country, at the same time as working with government officials to shape child-centered legislation. They were instrumental in designating April "Child Abuse Prevention Month" and "Childhelp National Day of Hope" and applauded the creation of the National Child Abuse Registry.

Fedderson, now 75, says it took years of knocking on doors for the chance to have a politician's ear before the creation of the Childhelp Governors' Resolution against Child Abuse, an unprecedented document committing every U.S. governor to eradicating child abuse in his or her state.

Today, O'Meara and Fedderson are still focused on children, inspiring the Childhelp staff and countless volunteers to try to keep up with them.


Rebecca Cooper is a reporter with ABC7/WJLA, and anchors the weekly Washington Business Report. She is a celebrity ambassador for Childhelp, and founded the Washington, D.C. fundraiser Childhelp's Capitol CAREaoke six years ago. This year's event is April 18.