CHILD’S FOURTH ANNUAL
CHILDREN’S CHAMPION AWARDS
Bob and Suzanne Wright
✦HONORED FOR: Founding Autism Speaks, a national nonprofit dedicated to raising public awareness of autism,
assisting families, and marshaling resources for research. In its first year alone, the organization raised $40 million.
✦HOW AND WHY THEY GOT STARTED: In 2004, when their grandson, Christian, was diagnosed with autism at age
2, the Wrights were shocked to find that despite the prevalence of the disorder—it affects one in 150 children, accord-
ing to the latest research—there was little understanding of autism in the medical community. “It wasn't clear what
causes autism and there was no agreement on therapies," says Bob, the former chairman and CEO of NBC Universal.
To make matters worse, many families were living under a veil of secrecy. The Wrights, who had the resources to get
the best possible care for their grandson, could have also kept it a private matter. But in their hearts they felt that going
public with their family’s story would benefit others. Says Suzanne, "People were saying, 'I don't want my child to know
he has autism; I don't want others to know.’ We wanted to get autism into the national vocabulary.”
✦THEIR BIGGEST HURDLE: Staying strong despite the emotional demands of speaking out on behalf of children
with autism. “It kills you to see a child slipping away, and it's heartbreaking to hear the families’ stories,” says
Suzanne, who, with her husband, travels around the country, making speeches and raising money. “Our challenge
is to stay focused on getting the word out there and making sure every child has access to interventions."
✦THEIR GREATEST TRIUMPH: The ratification, in December 2006, of the Combating Autism Act, a law that
increases federal support for autism research, treatment, and education. "Autism Speaks was involved in a lot of
lobby support for this legislation," says Bob. "We were able to bring together many organizations on this issue."
✦THE NEXT STEP Getting grandparents involved in the fight against autism. “Grandparents have a difficult time with
this because they’re grieving for both their children and their grandchildren,” says Suzanne. "But grandparents can
provide invaluable support and be a big part of these children’s lives, so they need to be galvanized.”
They come from diverse backgrounds—advocacy, the arts, education, medicine, and philanthropy—
but the six remarkable individuals we honor here and at our awards ceremony on May 9 in New York
City have much in common: All are working to improve the lives of the next generation through their
passion, dedication, and inspiring refusal to accept the status quo. By Erin Quinlan
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✦HONORED FOR: Fostering a sense of achievement and self-esteem in schoolchildren through the power of dance.
In 1976, while a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute
(NDI), an organization that has touched the lives of nearly 2 million kids through free in-school dance classes and per-
formances. NDI, which works with New York City-area partner schools and trains teaching artists from around the
country, is internationally recognized as a model for integrating arts education into everyday learning.
✦HOW AND WHY HE GOT STARTED: D'Amboise, who grew up in a rough section of New York City, started
attending his sister’s dance classes at age 7 because his mother wanted to keep him off the streets. Recognizing his
talent, the young boy’s teacher referred him, at age 8, to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet; by the
time he was 15, d’Amboise was a professional dancer. After returning to his old neighborhood following a
European tour, d’Amboise realized how dramatically dance had shaped him. "There were no big ambitions or
dreams in my community," he says. "It seemed like such a small world, a world without sunlight." Then he had an
idea: Maybe dance could help others too. Says d'Amboise, "I went to city schools and asked, 'Would anybody like
free dance lessons?' The condition was that the dance classes had to be part of the regular curriculum. In every
place of learning, arts should be as important as math and social studies—not relegated to something you do in the
corner after school." D’Amboise paid the costs himself until he learned he could form a nonprofit organization.
✦HIS GREATEST REWARD: Witnessing the transformation of a child. D’Amboise recalls one fourth-grader who
seemed a lost cause; the boy was disengaged and refused to interact with his classmates. D'Amboise coaxed him
into joining a few dance exercises, then returned a year later to find the boy still in the program. "There he was, danc-
ing like a dream," he says. "He was talking; his grades had rebounded. We had given him an opportunity to excel at
something, and because of his success in a little dance class he was no longer afraid to take a chance on life."
✦IN THE WORKS: Last year, NDI adopted the Senegalese village of Potou and is raising money through charity
drives at its partner schools to fight poverty, malnutrition, and disease in the region. "It goes back to our belief that
kids should not have to struggle," says d'Amboise. "It's about the promise of hope for children everywhere." ➤
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✦HONORED FOR: Providing New York City’s disadvantaged families with new and gently used childcare essentials.
Seinfeld is the founder of Baby Buggy, a model pickup and delivery service, that distributes baby gear, donated by
individuals as well as companies, to families who need it most. Since its 2001 inception, Baby Buggy has distributed
more than 2 million items to thousands of families. Says Seinfeld, “It’s my attempt to respond to both the great
need for safe baby equipment and the desire of many New Yorkers who want to help—but don’t know how.”
✦HOW AND WHY SHE GOT STARTED: After the birth of her daughter, Sascha, in 2000, Seinfeld (who now has
three children with husband Jerry Seinfeld) was struck by how quickly her baby outgrew her clothing and gear. "It
seemed so wasteful," says Seinfeld. "And other parents I talked to felt the same way. But as a new parent, who has
the time and resources to distribute unwanted baby items to those in need? I could barely leave the house in one
piece during my first months of motherhood!" A donation service, she decided, would be the perfect solution.
✦HER GREATEST TRIUMPH: In 2005, in response to reports of increasing cases of SIDS in New York City, Seinfeld
introduced a Crib Drive to ensure infants were sleeping safely. "Baby Buggy was a very lean operation, and we
wondered if crisis intervention was something we should tackle," she says. "But baby equipment that meets all safe-
ty mandates can stem a tragic loss of life, so we knew we had to support this initiative." With the help of hospitals
in high-risk communities, Baby Buggy distributed thousands of cribs and bassinettes.
✦HER BIGGEST CHALLENGE: "As with any nonprofit, fundraising and donations are our lifeblood," says Seinfeld.
"But some people assume that because of my husband's success we don't need the money. It helps to have Jerry
Seinfeld headlining your comedy benefit, but it's the public support of our mission that enables us to thrive."
✦WHAT INSPIRES HER: "We see how important our work is to those we serve," says Seinfeld. She remembers a
family of seven forced to live in a single bedroom; the children, including an infant, slept on the floor. Baby Buggy
provided the family with a stroller, a baby carrier, a bassinette, and clothing for the kids. Says Seinfeld, "There was
joy on the children’s faces and their mother was elated. Something like this happens every day at Baby Buggy." ➤
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Sally L. Smith
✦HONORED FOR: Initiating groundbreaking approaches to educating kids with learning disabilities. In 1967, when
few schools focused on students with dyslexia, attention problems, and other learning disabilities, Smith founded
The Lab School of Washington, a Washington, DC-based K-12 facility that teaches academics through a multisen-
sory, arts-based curriculum. Today, The Lab School, with its satellite programs in Baltimore and Philadelphia, serves
more than 400 learning-disabled kids each year (in addition to about tk adults). Smith is the school’s executive
director and a professor of special education/learning disabilities at American University in Washington, DC.
✦HOW AND WHY SHE GOT STARTED: Smith's third child, Gary, now 46 and a business owner and teacher, was
born with problems, including dyslexia and severe ADHD, that interfered with the way he processed information.
But Smith discovered that Gary was able to learn when all his senses were stimulated—through music, drama,
movement, visual imagery, and so on. Drumbeats, for example, helped him focus, and scavenger hunts motivat-
ed him to decipher written codes. When she couldn’t find a school that would incorporate these approaches,
Smith started her own. She developed a multisensory academic curriculm and launched The Lab School, which
opened with four learning-disabled students, including her son. Three months later, enrollment had quintupled,
and she was forced to find a bigger building. Says Smith, "People started coming to me and saying, 'Do with my
child what you're doing with yours.’ I didn't have medical training or a Ph.D.; I was just following my gut."
✦WHAT SHE TELLS PARENTS: Even if a child struggles with traditional approaches to math, reading, and writing,
“he might be the best judge of character; he might be incredibly talented at making things,” says Smith, who teach-
es her methods to educators across the country. “We need to look at what a child can do rather than what he
can't.” To learn about the culture of Brazil, for example, students at The Lab School dance to bossa nova music,
design Carnival costumes, play soccer, and sample its cuisine—all activities that help social studies lessons sink in.
✦HER BIGGEST CHALLENGE: "I faced a hard battle because at first I had no proof that my methods worked," she
says. "But today we have research showing that children who attend our program vs. those who don't test much
higher in all subjects." Now her most pressing goal is meeting the demand for the school’s services and securing
enough funding to keep the programs afloat. Says Smith, "Our students recently built a 14-foot giraffe in front of
the school with the motto 'stand tall.' The message was for the kids, but it's for the school as well."
✦WHAT INSPIRES HER: Seeing her former students flourish as adults. "Kids with learning disabilities are forced to
think outside the box," says Smith. "A lot of them go into the arts; others become entrepreneurs and inventors.
We have one doctorate and three more on the way. These children can soar when they're taught properly." ➤
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William H. Dietz, M.D., Ph.D.
✦HONORED FOR: Sounding the alarm on the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S. Since 1997, Dr. Dietz has
served as the director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, a role in which he has focused national attention on the increasing problem of
childhood obesity and provided funding for scores of community-based programs to combat the problem.
✦HOW AND WHY HE GOT STARTED: “Doctors have made incredible progress in fighting heart disease and
other illnesses, but childhood obesity can reverse those gains if we don’t do something about it,” says Dr.
Dietz. Eighteen percent of children and teens are overweight, putting them at an increased risk of develop-
ing life-threatening conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and artherosclerosis. This is not a new
problem, adds Dr. Dietz, who has devoted his entire career to helping kidsd combat weight problems. Prior
to joining the CDC, he served as president of the Silver Spring, MD-based North American Association for
the Study of Obesity and from 1983 to 1997 was a pediatrics professor at Tufts University in Boston, where
he founded what was then the only obesity clinic in the Northeast. In the early 1990s, Dr. Dietz was among
the first experts in the country to speak out against unhealthy school lunches, calling for nutritional reforms
that he says are finally starting to take effect.
✦BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In 1998, Dr. Dietz and his staff at the CDC began looking closely at statistics
from a nationwide annual phone survey of adults who had been asked to report their height and weight.
Anecdotally Americans seemed to be growing heavier, but were they really? To find out, Dr. Dietz’s team plot-
ted the collected data on a map of the United States—one for each year the survey was conducted. The
researchers were startled to discover that rates of obesity were not only climbing but skyrocketing, with a con-
centrated spike in poorer states. Meanwhile, outside studies suggested children were gaining weight even
more rapidly than adults. As a result, doctors and other healthcare professionals began connecting the dots
and asking tough questions about the economic and cultural underpinnings of the epidemic. “The maps had a
big impact on the national discussion,” says Dr. Dietz.
✦WHAT LIES AHEAD: Dr. Dietz and his CDC colleagues are currently evaluating programs across the country to learn
which are most effective in helping kids reduce the risk of obesity. For instance, one school-based program in El Paso, TX,
that promotes walking and offers cooking classes for parents is showing promise. “It's about quality of life, good nutrition,
safe neighborhoods,” says Dr. Dietz. “With kids, you have to get all these diverse issues under the same umbrella."
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