From A Modest Idea, A Major Good Cause Born In Philadelphia, Unicef Trick-or-treat Campaign Turns 50

Posted: October 30, 2000

The Rev. Clyde Allison and his wife, Mary Emma, were taken aback by the piles of goodies their children brought back to their Hatboro home one Halloween in the late 1940s.

"It's too bad we can't turn this into something good, " Mary Emma told her husband.

"We can," he replied.

Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF was born.

After the conversation, Mr. Allison went to his office in Center City, sat down at his typewriter, and wrote an article for the Junior High Kit, a Presbyterian youth magazine he edited from the church's national education headquarters in Philadelphia.

He proposed that children dress up not as ghosts and goblins on Halloween, but as people from other countries. And he recommended that they trick-or-treat not for candy but for contributions to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

That article, published in 1950, was the spark that ignited what has become the largest youth volunteer effort in America.

The first drive, launched in Philadelphia and other cities on Oct. 31, 1950, sent children door-to-door collecting money for UNICEF in old milk cartons. Records at the U.N. agency report the Philadelphia effort raised all of $17.

Last year, UNICEF's trick-or-treat campaign raised more than $3 million.

The money is used to buy everything from medicine to pencils for millions of poor children in more than 160 developing countries.

"It was a nice idea, but I certainly had no notion it would grow to become what it is today," Mr. Allison, 83, now retired and living in Lowell, Ind., recalled last week.

Tomorrow, UNICEF's trick-or-treat campaign will mark its 50th anniversary. It's a special occasion for Mr. Allison and the children at his former church, First Presbyterian in Philadelphia's Bridesburg section, who were among the first in the country to trick-or-treat for UNICEF.

"I honestly don't know if we realized the importance of what we were doing," said Bruce Beaton, 55, a former member of Mr. Allison's church, who scoured the gritty blue-collar streets of Bridesburg collecting money for UNICEF in the early 1950s. "It was something we were told to do, and we didn't mind doing it after that."

At first, Beaton recalled, the effort was catch-as-catch-can, with children covering just a few blocks. Soon it evolved into a systematic outreach to all 3,000 homes in Bridesburg. There was one caveat, though. Children weren't allowed to collect in bars, a rule that the older kids sometimes circumvented because the taverns provided their biggest haul, Beaton said.

He recalled dressing up as a Spaniard and going door-to-door with mason jars. After the effort caught on across the country, UNICEF provided children with the bright orange boxes that became UNICEF's trademark and are still used today.

Initially, the money collected for UNICEF on Halloween went to buy powdered milk for displaced children in Europe and China, which had been ravaged by World War II.

Today, UNICEF's efforts are targeted at poor children around the world, especially those in Africa and Asia.

The trick-or-treat campaign - which aims to raise $5 million this year - represents just a tiny percentage of UNICEF's overall $1.1 billion budget, most of it funded by governments around the world.

But even modest amounts can accomplish a lot in poor countries.

For instance, 30 cents can buy a five-day course of antibiotics for a child with pneumonia; $1 can buy half a pound of seed for a community vegetable garden; $2.46 can buy a complete set of school supplies for one child; $10 can buy enough water purification tablets to clean 52 gallons of contaminated drinking water; and $17 can pay for enough vaccine to immunize a child against six childhood diseases, including polio and measles.

In the Philadelphia area, about 400 schools took part in last year's Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF campaign, raising more than $260,000, said Nancy Klaus, director of the Delaware Valley Chapter of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which oversees the drive. The goal had been $160,000.

This year, local officials aim to raise $300,000 and involve more of the estimated 4,000 schools around the region.

Like other local UNICEF chapters, Philadelphia's is raising an increasing proportion of its funds from yearlong events hosted by schools and church groups.

Klaus said that parents' concerns about safety - as well as the rise of religious groups that regard Halloween as a satanic ritual - have dampened door-to-door collections. Nonetheless, she said, overall giving has consistently been on the rise.

Klaus promotes the UNICEF program not just as a fund-raising effort but as an educational program - an opportunity for relatively well-off children in the United States to learn something about the needs of children in impoverished countries.

UNICEF makes educational materials available to schools and other groups. The materials pull no punches about the problems facing children in other countries - land mines, forced labor, sexual exploitation, malnutrition, filthy drinking water, AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Klaus believes that, despite their young age, children can relate. "To say that kids don't get it is condescending," Klaus said. "I've had kindergartners be able to talk intelligently about Kosovo."

Local school officials agree.

Every Halloween, Dave Hayes, a guidance counselor at Beaumont Elementary School in Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, dons a big UNICEF box and parades around the school, promoting Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF among the school's 440 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

At each classroom, Hayes uses simple language to explain why the money is needed.

Last year, the Beaumont children raised $1,400 for the program. Over the last six years, they have raised more than $7,000, Hayes said.

At the Philadelphia School, a private school in Center City, teacher Janet Weinstein has gotten first and second graders involved in a read-a-thon to raise money. In a monthlong effort last school year, the 72 children in first and second grade brought in $4,000 in pledges for UNICEF.

"Everybody was sort of blown away," Weinstein said.

In some families, Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has become a tradition.

Beaton, who left Bridesburg a few years ago and now lives in Warminster, passed it on to his son, who in turn has passed it on to his children, Emily, 8, and Tyler, 7, students at Frankford Friends School.

Emily, a third grader, said she plans to trick-or-treat on Tuesday night costumed as Colleen, from last summer's television hit Survivor, in which contestants vied to win $1 million.

Despite that show's more-money-for-me ethic, Emily said she will be trick-or-treating for UNICEF, not just for candy. Asked what she would do if she won $1 million, she replied: "I'd give it all to UNICEF."

UNICEF boxes are available in the Philadelphia area at CVS and Pathmark stores. For more information, go to or call 1-800-252-5437.

Huntly Collins' e-mail address is

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