Going The Extra Mile
Save the Children’s Carolyn Miles on protecting the young and vulnerable, here and around the world
Carolyn Miles is a serious person with a serious voice, but she laughs so easily, too, which must help a lot when your life is devoted to the desperate. One of the things you never quite get used to when you run Save the Children is when your desk blotter is the whole wide world. And it needs you.
How are you for lunch? Today in Jordan we’re doing a modest little spread for 85,000. No loaves and fishes today, thank you. Your seating will be in a field not far from the Syrian border, where you and nearly 2.6 million refugees are on the run from a madman. Half of your number are children, with nowhere to turn, so a group of aid people assigned by Save the Children will work alongside young volunteers from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, in fashioning today’s repast. While feeding 85,000 people doesn’t begin to cover it, it is an essential part of the bigger fight.
This is Carolyn’s fight. Every day.
It’s easy to see why the Save the Children organization lifted its former COO to full chairman and president status in 2011. She not only knows where every thumbtack and canceled check is in the place, she also has been impressing people with her can-do manner for quite a while. A slender, active blonde with an engaging glint in her eye, she has the air of a tennis pro who’s likely to rush the net on you. “I used to be a competitive swimmer,” she corrects, “but now I just run, very slowly, and go to exercise class, when I am home, at the Sportsplex. Newest thing is The Bar Method classes in Fairfield.”
She has much on her mind, and she’s always on the move. Even her home office is in flux. The organization’s headquarters is being removed from the sunny shores of the Saugatuck River to a new place in Fairfield. But meanwhile, you know, Nepal is calling.
It’s been a good healthy leap for a woman who once imagined herself in a corporate power suit. When she was getting her MBA at the University of Virginia, did she know she would one day be kneeling in the mud in remote villages? Her laughter is swift: “Did. Not. Know!” she says. “I thought I’d be having a nice, quiet life working at American Express.”
She was, in fact, working for AmEx in 1991, just a few years out of school, when her life changed. She and her husband, Brendan, were stationed in Hong Kong, and took their two young children on a trip to the Philippines. Driving in from the airport, she saw the poverty pressing in from all sides and instinctively clutched her six-month-old son sitting on her lap.
“There were beggars at every stoplight,” she recalls. “A woman came up to the window with a baby that was about the same age as my son but wasn’t nearly as healthy. That’s when it struck me that it’s all about who your parents are. That really dictates what your life is like. My son was going to do what he wanted, and her baby was not going to have those opportunities. It was just not going to happen.
“That’s when I began thinking that there must be some way I can take this experience and do something else with it. I started volunteering in Hong Kong with the Vietnamese war refugees that were still there.”
At The Roots
Returning to the States in 1996, she wanted to do more volunteer work. “I didn’t know a lot about it but I started looking around to see what was out there, and Save the Children was at the top of the list.”
The organization began its work in 1932, the depths of the Depression, as a school-lunch program in Appalachia. The logic was simple: If they fed the kids, the parents would send them to school. The program was so successful, it was developed into a federal program.
Save the Children still has a strong domestic presence. “Now a lot of our focus is on literacy,” Carolyn says. “We have programs to make sure kids can read by the fourth grade. Amazingly, there are millions of kids in the U.S. who can’t.” She points to a broad swath across the southernmost third of the nation where literacy is most at risk.
Since budget cutbacks in the United States have impinged on phys. ed. classes at schools, Save the Children has also dived into various health programs for school kids. The most desperate sort of health situation to befall children arrives, of course, after a disaster. Hurricanes, tornadoes and superstorms created their own kinds of havoc.
Then there was Newtown.
As Save the Children’s emergency teams sprinted up to Newtown to help after the shootings, they found themselves relying on lessons learned in other situations. “After natural disasters like Katrina and Sandy, we set up child-friendly spaces. It’s what we do for emergencies. In the case of Newtown, the child-friendly space was a separate space, a place where kids could come to while waiting for counseling or their parents. A lot of it is activities for kids, but there were also psychologists there, looking out for kids who were having a real hard time.”
The experience has led them into now focusing more on school safety. “How do schools actually prepare?” she wondered. Now they have new information to help prepare for the days when safety disappears.
Far And Near
People who contribute money to Save the Children finance an agency that puts 360 people to work on domestic programs. Then they have boots on the ground in ninety other countries. “And there are about 14,000 who work outside the country,” she says, “and those folks are usually from that country. They’re Somalis or Colombians. In that whole system there are only like 100 American ex-pats. In Jordan, for example, most of our workers are young, twentysomething Jordanians who have basically said, ‘This is what’s happening in my country. This is how I want to help.’ Most of them are quite well-educated and could be doing other things, but this is the work they want to be doing right now.”
For some of the workers, a military background comes in handy. “It is helpful to know how to get large amounts of things from one place to another. And there are situations where you’re leading large groups of people.”
In brief, the cheerful children’s art that one sees decorating the main offices in Westport do not show how truly tough it is out there on the desperate plains. “It’s very tough,” Carolyn admits. “For people who work inside the refugees camps, or work inside Syria itself, those are very, very tough conditions.
“When I was in Lebanon earlier in the year, our staff was living in very basic circumstances. They’re out there where the refugees are. It’s just camps. People are living in fields.”
People living in fields. Despite the size of their hearts, the staffers are not expected to do it till they drop. Every three months or so, folks are brought home for a spell. “It’s hard to work under that kind of pressure for longer. People essentially work for twenty-four hours a day. The needs are so great.”
Carolyn Miles is one CEO who does not observe all these affairs from the safety of a polished desk in Fairfield County. Just read her blog, Logging Miles, on the savethechildren.org website, or read her stories on The Huffington Post, and observe her wide field of view, as if she were Albert Schweitzer combined with Phileas Fogg. Being chief of this sort of outfit doesn’t mean smiling over shrimp at a benefactor’s party—it means serious face time with the careworn.
And what could be more elemental to child welfare than the actual birth? More than 40 million babies a year are born, she says, with the assistance of people with zero training. Even scarier, a million times a year, a woman somewhere gives birth when she is absolutely alone.
This is one reason Carolyn was anxious to get back to Nepal, which suffers one of the worst rates of infant mortality in the world. She heard the stories right from the source. “There was a woman I met about five years ago, this was in southern Nepal, near the border of India. She was telling us about the birth of her third child. It was coming way too fast.” Carolyn adopts a blithe voice. “She says, ‘Oh, I went into labor, then I decided to have the baby at home. I laid down and pushed and the baby was born, and I caught it, and then I cut the umbilical cord and wrapped the baby up.’
“And we’re all looking at her, like, ‘Was anybody there?’ But she said no. Her husband was away at work, her daughters were in the village.”
Hearing stories like this just propels Carolyn to work harder on the organization’s goals training more community health workers. Some progress has been made. But while the death rate of children has been halved since 1990, 6.6 million a year is, she sighs, “way too many. There’s lots more to do.”
Save the Children has grown considerably. When it moved into the Wilton Road headquarters forty years ago, it employed forty people. Currently, it has “265-ish to 300.” She adds, “So it’s definitely a much bigger organization. That, and combined with when Sandy hit, both sides of the river were pretty flooded. We needed to decide what to do. And it was time to sell the building and find new space.”
Because of the many supporters here, the organization wanted to stay in Fairfield County. Since the better part of the staff lives in the town of Fairfield and points north, it was decided to go in that direction. “I think we have a great location,” she says of the building at 501 Kings Highway in Fairfield. “It’s in the Board of Education building, in an area of town that’s starting to change a little bit, what with the new train station. It’s got the right space for us and lots of parking. And it’s a great community—I actually live in Fairfield. My kids went to school here and one is still there now.”
That would be her daughter Molly, age twelve. She has two brothers, Patrick, nineteen, who attends the University of Delaware, and Keegan, twenty-one, who lives upstate.
Having been at Save the Children for sixteen years, she certainly knew the culture. But being COO, she says, meant being internally focused. Now she is very much concentrating on the external.
When she needs advice, she has a terrific counselor in chair of the Save the Children’s Board of Trustees Anne Mulcahy, who is not only a Fairfield neighbor but also a veteran of brass-knuckles corporate generalship; she was the much lauded CEO of Xerox before turning her attentions to Save the Children.
“She is a terrific mentor,” Carolyn says. “The best piece of advice she gave me is that, despite the external pace, you have to spend time with people inside the organization. You can spend all your time as CEO focused on the outside, but you really need to build rapport with your staff and follow the people inside the organization. That’s what they want from a CEO. They want somebody who understands what they do and who spends time with them. And I try to do that.”
When Carolyn Miles goes home at night, she can’t know about the migrant worker’s child in southern California who can now read a street sign thanks to the free lessons from those nice people, or the toddler taking first steps on the perimeter of a Ugandan war zone and actually surviving another day—but, of course, she knows they’re out there, soon to be followed by another child who needs help, because that’s the way of this world, and someone actually cares to make it better.