Still Protecting Children, Decades After A Chance Encounter

This post is part of our month-long series featuring Greatest Women of the Day, in recognition of Women's History Month.

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Sara O'Meara and Yvonne Fedderson met on the set of 1950s sitcom "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" and were entertaining U.S. soldiers in Japan in 1959, when a typhoon changed everything.

Stir crazy after being stuck in a hotel room in Tokyo for days, the two ventured out in the storm with just their camel hair coats for protection, and made a startling discovery.

"We found 11 children huddled together to fend off the cold, their knuckles were cracked and bleeding from the cold," said Sara, now 76. "We couldn't understand anything they were saying, but we did understand "no mama-san, no papa-san."

Sara and Yvonne, now 75, snuck all 11 orphaned children back up to their hotel room, bribing the hotel's maids with cashmere sweaters to keep them quiet. The children, they later found out, had been turned out of orphanages because they were half-American.

In an odyssey so dramatic it was turned into a Lifetime movie, the pair found a woman who was already taking care of 10 orphaned children in a small mud hut, and turned it into an orphanage. "We though we'd be mana-sans and take care of those children ourselves," Sara said.

"Overnight, we had another 100 children left on out doorstep, carrying notes that said 'children of mixed blood.'" They ended up building four more orphanages in Japan.

Since they inadvertently started working with children 52 years ago, Sara and Yvonne have helped change the lives of over six million children and have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five years in a row. The pair went on to build orphanages, a hospital and a school in Vietnam, and organized the "Vietnam baby lift" that took children to safety, and adopted homes in the U.S.

Just when they thought their mission was over, Yvonne said, they were asked to tackle child abuse, an issue that was still taboo the 1970s when they started. The pair launched the "Good Touch/Bad Touch" campaign, started the National Child Abuse Hotline so people could call for help, and for the most traumatized children, developed an approach to help pave the way to recovery.

Childhelp had now built three "villages" which host a residential therapy program designed to help children feel safe and loved, Yvonne explained. They have art therapy and animal therapy. There are schools, therapists and a network of foster homes for the kids to move into once they start to recover.

Sara and Yvonne still run the charity as CEO and president, working every single day Sara said. "We work 24 hours a day, I think it keeps us young," she added.

Sara bubbles over when she talks about the children they have watched grow up. One 6-year-old boy was severely abused and stopped talking after seeing a sibling murdered. "They placed him in 22 foster homes, and he wouldn't talk, so the foster parents just wanted to get rid of him," said Sara. Even the speech therapist at the Childhelp village couldn't get him to say a word. Then one of the therapists hit on an idea: giving him a pony to take care of. "His eyes got as big as saucers, and he would get up early to go to the corral," said Sara. "Within a week, the little boy had put his arms around the neck of the pony and said 'I love you,'" she added.

Yvonne said she was touched by a 14-year-old boy they visited in a foster home. He asked to speak to Yvonne and Sara privately. He asked them how they had started Childhelp, and then told them how he and his sister had been abused, and how they had bounced from foster home to foster home until they joined Childhelp. "He said once a month, they had to work with physically challenged children, and one time, the little boy he was working with dropped a pail," Yvonne explained. "He bent down to pick it up, and he said he realized this little boy would always be like this, but he could change his life."