BY BILL FORRY
Dorchester native Lawrence O’Donnell’s philanthropic efforts to supply desks and chairs to young students in the African nation of Malawi earned him UNICEF USA’s Children’s Champion Award last month during the organization’s annual Boston gala.
The May 23 event, held at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, raised more than $1 million to support UNICEF’s work around the globe.
In accepting the award, O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, saluted his own family and the Sisters of St. Joseph, who “taught me how to read and write” at St. Brendan’s school in Dorchester. O’Donnell was joined at the celebration by his brothers Kevin and Michael and several other friends and family.
Among his personal guests was Meg Campbell, his classmate at Harvard College and the founder of Dorchester’s Codman Academy. O’Donnell credits her with inspiring his first trip to Malawi, since she had visited the country first and recounted the great need that exists among the schoolchildren there.
“At every school, she asked teachers what they needed, and every time they said the same thing: they said ‘chairs.’ They just wanted to get those kids out of the mud, off the cement.”
Within weeks, O’Donnell went to Malawi to figure out how to begin meeting that need. Out of that trip was born his non-profit K.I.N.D (Kids in Need of Desks) Fund. Aided greatly by support drawn from O’Donnell’s viewers on MSNBC, the fund has raised more than $17 million that has provided more than 500,000 students with desks and supporting scholarships for more than 3,000 young women.
O’Donnell partners with UNICEF to assist with logistics in the African country.
“UNICEF has its own infrastructure in Malawi that is unlike any other presence in that country, and trying to do anything in Malawi without UNICEF’s help is really trying to do it the hard way,” he said in his remarks. “Doing it with UNICEF’s help, with your help, with what you do for UNICEF, makes it possible. It wouldn’t even be possible without UNICEF.”
O’Donnell also recounted that the fund was inspired in part by Karen Russell, the daughter of Celtics great Bill Russell, who encouraged him to use his media platform to serve a greater good.
“Now that you have this forum, what are you going to do with it?” she asked him. “And she meant it in that deep Russell way,” said O’Donnell.
Joyce Chisale, a young woman from Malawi who is a beneficiary of the K.I.N.D. Fund, spoke to the crowd and shared how education has impacted her life, before presenting Lawrence with his award.
The gala featured vibrant performances by JAG African Drum Ensemble and Zili Misik with Masary Studios. The Cyclorama was transformed by the design of Rafanelli Events that immersed guests in the “Rhythm of Community.”
Auctioneer Kate Chertavian led the live auction that offered alluring experiences, including a New York Fashion Week trip to see the Oscar de la Renta and Jason Wu runway shows; a deluxe trip to Portugal; a stay at private Tuscan style villa on Martha’s Vineyard; a New York City insider experience with backstage passes to The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and house seats for Dear Evan Hansen; and a Fenway Park summer package with Billy Joel tickets and premium tickets for a Red Sox-Yankees home game.
BY BILL FORRY