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All Treat, No Tricks As UNICEF Fundraiser Turns 60

Students and a teacher from the PS229 school in Woodside, N.Y., attend a Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF 60th anniversary celebration in New York City.
Slaven Vlasic
Getty Images North America
Students and a teacher from the PS229 school in Woodside, N.Y., attend a Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF 60th anniversary celebration in New York City.

Many children grew up holding out orange boxes along with their candy bags when they went trick-or-treating on Halloween, softening scary appearances with an appeal for donations to the United Nations Children's Fund.

This year, the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program turns 60, and the organization is unveiling an iPhone application to help in its fundraising efforts.

But over the years, those little orange boxes have helped raise millions of dollars for the charity.

The Beginning Of The Tradition

It all began a few years after World War II ended. Mary Emma Allison, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, came upon a UNICEF parade -- with a live cow and children dressed in costumes from many lands -- in downtown Philadelphia.

She saw a banner saying one cent will buy 20 glasses of milk. It gave her the idea to collect for UNICEF on Halloween. Her daughter Mickey Allison, now in her 60s, remembers that Mary Emma, a teacher, would take those small empty cartons of milk from school and bring them home.

"We would wash them in soapy water, and we put an orange arm band around it," Mickey says. "And then it progressed into the orange boxes."

The idea caught on after the Rev. Clyde Allison published an article in a church newsletter.

The Allison children went out every Halloween. Monroe Allison and sister Mary Jean remember their father telling them that a penny represented so many glasses of milk, so many vaccines, so many mosquito nets.

And as he went trick-or-treating, Monroe would think, "That was the penny for the milk. Now I have to collect the penny for the vaccines."

By collecting the money, the Allison children learned the value of a dime, and how it could feed many children.

Millions Of Dollars Raised

Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has raised more than $160 million overall. It funds children's immunization, health care, nutrition and education in more than 150 countries and territories. Over the years, it has been promoted by scores of celebrities and featured on television shows ranging from Bewitched to Lassie.

For the first 25 years, donations rose almost every year. Then they leveled off for about 20 years, at a little more than $2 million a year.

UNICEF faced a number of problems. One was a confusion in the minds of the public between UNICEF and UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The United States left UNESCO in 1984, saying it was beholden to the Soviet bloc. And the Reagan administration was angry that it had condemned Zionism as equivalent to racism.

In 2003, the United States rejoined UNESCO, but still, teachers often come across parents who say UNICEF is unfriendly to Israel and they have to explain to them that they are confusing two different organizations.

Kini Schoop, the director of public relations for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, says there were a number of years where there was stagnation, but "donations have definitely picked up."

Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF is now taking in a little more than $4 million a year. Sixty percent of the collections come from 10 states, including California, New York and Texas. About 2.6 million kids and teens participated last year.

'We Have To Take Care Of Each Other'

For many years, Lucy Reuben has been organizing Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF at PS3, a public school in Greenwich Village in New York City.

The most important thing is teaching kids about social responsibility, she says. "We have to take care of each other. That's why we are on the Earth."

Reuben has done things like take the schoolchildren to the stock exchange. The children would walk around to all of the brokers and raise $4,000 in one hour.

Zeke Fine, one of Reuben's current fifth-grade students, says he takes the orange box on the bus on his way home.

"Walking in with my box, people just put money in," he says. He doesn't even have to ask.

Of course, most children will simply take their orange boxes to their neighbor's houses on Halloween, as children have done for six decades.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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