Couple give hearts, time to children’s charities

Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz chair the World of Children awards

World of Children Award co-founders and co-chairs Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz at their home in Rancho Santa Fe. Each year, the couple's foundation gives grants to people and organizations heading up children's charities.
World of Children Award co-founders and co-chairs Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz at their home in Rancho Santa Fe. Each year, the couple’s foundation gives grants to people and organizations heading up children’s charities.


RANCHO SANTA FE — In 1996, Harry Leibowitz was home recuperating from cancer treatment and flipping channels on the TV when he came across the poetry award ceremony for the Pulitzer Prize. Very nice, he thought, but it begged a question.

“I thought, they can give a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a Nobel prize for economics, but they don’t have an award for people who do things for children?”

Two years later, the career marketing executive launched the World of Children Award, a program that has given more than $7 million in grants to 112 children’s charity leaders in 69 countries.

Standing by his side since 1999 as his partner in life, work and charity is Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz, who said she fell in love with her husband and his charity at the same instant.

“Six weeks after we met, I went to one of his World of Children events and I remember seeing him there surrounded by all these children and that was it. It was simultaneous. Right there I dedicated myself to him and to World of Children. I knew that’s how I wanted to spend the rest of my life,” she said.

Like the Pulitzers and Nobels, World of Children awards cash prizes in multiple categories of children’s health, education and humanitarian work. There are also awards for charity leaders under the age of 21. The organization’s issues of focus are groups that promote girls’ education and target child sex trafficking, poverty, disease, hunger, disfigurement and bullying.

Lynn Naylor, executive director of World of Children, said everything the organization has accomplished is to its founders’ credit.

“Kay and Harry are visionary global thinkers, who also understand the importance of reaching out to help one child at a time. Their unique approach delivers global change for children, and many tiny precious smiles each day,” she said.

Although the couple now live a comfortable life in Rancho Santa Fe with their rescue pets Lucky, a yellow Lab, and Mia, a gray tabby, they both were exposed to poverty as children and know the scars it can leave.

Harry grew up on Coney Island, where three generations of his family shared an old bungalow that wealthy tourists once used as a changing room. They shared a bathroom with 10 other families. Things began to look up when Harry was 11. His longshoreman father got a job driving a postal truck and the family moved into a Brooklyn apartment with indoor plumbing. But when his father died at age 46, 14-year-old Harry spent the next eight years working the graveyard shift in a bakery to support his mom, sister and grandparents, who had fled pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe.

“We didn’t have much but my grandmother always insisted that we put a penny in a box each night for people who were poorer than we were,” he said.

Despite his rough start, Harry went on to a successful 40-year career as a senior executive for Procter & Gamble, ESMARK and his own marketing firm. He said he was always drawn to serve on the boards of children’s charities, but he always wanted to do more.

The daughter of a decorated U.S. Air Force pilot, Kay was born in Washington but spent many of her formative years abroad. She attended grade school in Taiwan where she walked through rice paddies to a one-room schoolhouse and finished high school in Ethiopia, where her family’s home was a few doors down from a leper colony. Her parents regularly took in needy children and teens.

“From the time I was very young, I saw my parents caring for people who had very little,” she said. “We weren’t poor but I saw poverty and lived around it. My parents made sure we know how lucky we were.”

Like her husband, Kay had a highly successful corporate career, serving as executive vice president for Victoria’s Secret Stores and senior vice president of merchandising for Banana Republic.

In 1987, she and six friends in Dallas decided to donate to charity rather than exchange holiday gifts. With their own money and $25,000 raised practically overnight in the community, they opened Bryan’s House, a home for HIV-positive infants orphaned by the AIDS crisis. It was a life-changing experience.

“Once I saw how easy it was to make a difference, I never stopped,” she said.

The couple now work full-time as the volunteer co-chairs for World of Children. They’re also the nonprofit’s top donors and lead fundraisers. Harry gets up at 4 a.m. daily so he can make overseas phone calls, while Kay begins her workday at the leisurely hour of 6:30 a.m.

World of Children has a staff of four paid employees in the Bay area and a 17-member board who each pay $15,000 annually to cover the organization’s administrative costs. Sixty-five percent of the money raised goes toward award grants and much of the rest is spent on research, educational and networking services for awardees.

The board includes many corporate CEOs and senior executives who like the organization’s structure, which is transparent in its fundraising, has low overhead and submits all of its award candidates to intensive background checks. Grantees can only receive their full funding (often over a three-year period) if they meet budget benchmarks, and all honorees except youth winners must have a 10-year track record.

“We run it like a business, and our board members appreciate that,” Harry said.

This year’s awards were handed out last Thursday in New York City. Among the honorees was Miriam Mason-Sesay, who has run school programs since 2000 in war-torn and ebola-stricken Sierra Leone. Kay said Miriam is typical of the “real life heroes” that World of Children honors.

“These are people who have given up their lives because they saw a need and they ran toward it, not away from it,” she said. “They dedicate their lives and fortunes to their cause, work around the clock and put themselves at great personal risk.”

Recently, World of Children introduced Alumni Honors. Past awardees who’ve shown a proven track record of success can apply for a second award. One alumni honoree is Craig Keilberger, who runs Free the Children, which provides education, nutrition and health care to schoolchildren in Kenya.

In 2002, he received a $10,000 World of Children grant for the small program he was then running out of his mother’s basement. Today, the $16 million organization has built 650 schools in Kenya benefiting a combined 512,000 students. Keilberger said World of Children took a chance on him and his group when no one else would. “When we first started, there were few who believed in our work. World of Children saw the potential in us.”

The couple have no plans to quit, but they are preparing succession plans so World of Children can carry on after they’re gone. Kay also spends many hours working to expand female membership on U.S. corporate boards (she serves on the board for the clothier Guess?) and Harry has spent the past 10 years working to form a coalition to end child sex trafficking.

In a speech at last week’s ceremony, Harry told the audience of 450 that he believes everyone would like to help children if given the proper incentive: “I believe that everyone in this room has the desire to see a vulnerable child smile for the very first time in their life, all we need is the vehicle.”