Published 4:31 pm, Friday, October 13, 2017
When an earthquake devastated her native Ecuador in 2016, Karla Gallardo rallied friends to donate to UNICEF, the arm of the United Nations dedicated to women and children worldwide.
It was a chance for the co-founder and CEO of accessories brand Cuyana to give back after being on the receiving end before she came to the U.S. in 2001. And Gallardo had another chance when she was asked to join the committee of UNICEF’s first San Francisco gala, held on Oct. 7 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Northwest Regional Board co-chair Susanne Caballero said that a local gala was just a twinkle in her eye for many years. It wasn’t until the Northern California office opened a couple of years ago that UNICEF was able to join other cities (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta) with what she hopes will become an annual occasion.
Stories like Gallardo’s punctuated the evening, which was focused more on facilitating empathy than on flashy names and celebrities. Perhaps this is fitting for an activist-friendly sanctuary city flush with money and minds looking for an outlet to give back in a meaningful way.
The true celebrity was author, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and former Sierra Leone child soldier Ishmael Beah, who received a Spirit of Compassion award from UNICEF USA President and CEO Caryl Stern, herself a child of a child refugee.
Beah met UNICEF representatives on a battlefield after three years of fighting, where people wearing blue T-shirts rather than ball gowns, negotiated for his release from his commander. Eventually, Beah was adopted into the United States and became a citizen — something, he noted, that likely would not be possible today.
“The thing that changed my life was that somebody stopped, at some point, and decided to do something, not for themselves, but for someone else,” Beah said. “When you take on supporting UNICEF, you’re actually preserving humanity.”
He sees the current climate — in which the fates of refugees and immigrants are in peril — as an opportunity for people to become more active citizens. “I think what is going on now is actually waking everyone up,” Beah said. “You can’t just be a good person. It’s not enough. You have to do something about it. I think, in a way, that’s an awakening.”
To that end, cocktail bars shared space with a “virtual reality bar” stocked with Oculus Rift headsets that facilitated immersion in UNICEF’s world: a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, a Liberian village that is home to Ebola orphans, and the remains of shelled buildings in Gaza. Nearby, a UNICEF-blue “water walk” invited black-tie clad guests to lug two large jugs of water to illustrate the daily efforts of women and girls to access safe drinking water.
The event attracted about 300 patrons, including Blue Bottle CEO Bryan Meehan, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and DJ Eric Prydz, who donated his time to perform after dinner. Some attendees, such as UNICEF Northwest Regional Board Chair Elena Marimo Berk, wore Valentino, which sponsored the event.
Although empathy and education were primary motivating factors, the event ultimately was a fundraiser that raised almost $500,000.
“San Francisco is always a city of action, and the idea that we can collect some of that action for the world’s children is pretty exciting,” Stern said. She added that the work of UNICEF International’s innovation unit, which has a lab in San Francisco, is responsible for recent projects such as using drones for HIV testing in remote parts of Malawi and building the SMS network U-Report (a tool for community participation) in Uganda.
“There’s an amazing technical revolution happening, and that in itself is an opportunity to look at philanthropy in a different way, so I’m happy to engage that part of the community,” Stern said. “But I’m also excited to engage the traditional San Francisco community. The city has always represented youth and isn’t afraid to use its voice, and sometimes you have to collect that voice for the vulnerable.”
She added that its status as a sanctuary city was particularly resonant: “I believe that children shouldn’t be defined by their borders, but defined by their age.”
Maghan McDowell is a San Francisco freelance writer. Email: email@example.com