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Trick or Treat for UNICEF

Allison family began the Halloween charity drive 60 years ago

A chance encounter between a cow in a department store and a mother shopping for coats for her children became the inspiration for a movement that would forever change the way American children celebrate Halloween.

The cow was promoting UNICEF's powdered milk drive for hungry children in postwar Europe and China on that day in the late 1940s when Mary Emma Allison spotted it being led through the Wanamaker's store in Philadelphia.

It was a eureka moment.

In the years immediately after World War II, Allison, a schoolteacher, and her husband, Clyde, a Presbyterian minister, had collected shoes, soap and coats for Church World Service, an interfaith Christian humanitarian organization. But that effort had ended, and the Allisons were "searching for what would be the thing to fill in for the coats and soap they'd been collecting," recalled Mary Jean Thomson, the oldest of the three Allison children.

Enter the cow.

Her mother came home from Wanamaker's and said: "Clyde, I found it! Wouldn't it be amazing if we went trick-or-treating for UNICEF?"

The couple first tried out their idea on their own daughters, shy preschoolers the first time they knocked on doors for contributions.

"We were real little, and my mother was behind us, and we were trying to explain it, and there were these memories of terror, actually," Thomson said. "But people are generous. We got money and candy, so my parents knew it was a go."

Thus was born Trick or Treat for UNICEF, a United Nations program that so far has raised nearly $160 million and is celebrating its 60th birthday this weekend.

Born in China to missionary parents, Clyde Allison was at the time editor of a national magazine for Sunday school teachers and directors. He told his wife that if she would write up her ideas, he would publish them in his magazine.

In her article, "Trick or Treat for All the World's Children: Something New for Halloween," published in 1950, she wrote, "Our specific interest is in sending milk abroad to children who, without United Nations aid, would not have any … Use paper milk boxes to hold your money or washed-out milk cans with slits cut in the tops as collection banks."

Mary Emma brought home empty milk cartons from school — the precursors of the now-iconic orange boxes. "She would bring them home and cut out orange paper and write UNICEF on it and wrap it around the little milk cartons," said Thomson. She, her sister, Mickey, and their brother, Monroe, would dress up like children from other nations, sometimes in clothes Clyde had brought from China. "Then my dad would give a speech before we all went out trick-or-treating about how powerful the money was and what we were doing. He turned us into little UNICEF ambassadors before we went."

Thomson said her parents loved the idea of kids collecting for kids. "If you tell children how much power they have — a dime can buy 50 glasses of milk — that's really kind of powerful," she explained.

Beginning on Halloween 1950, children all over the country, inspired by Mary Emma Allison's article, began collecting money and sending it to UNICEF.

Puzzled, UNICEF sought out Clyde Allison, who by then had his own congregation, Bridesburg Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. "He was very thrilled when they took notice," Thomson said. By 1951, UNICEF had found the family, and so had the media. Their pictures appeared in newspapers all over the country, and Clyde Allison was named man of the year by the city of Philadelphia. The U.S. Committee for UNICEF (now the U.S. Fund for UNICEF) took over the program in 1953.

By the time they were teenagers, the Allison children's trick-or-treating years were behind them, but on the 25th anniversary of Trick or Treat for UNICEF, the organization flew the family, then living in Chicago, back to Philadelphia for a celebration, a "glorious, wonderful" event, Thomson said.

These days, the program has become a thoroughly modern effort, with its own celebrity spokeswoman, teen actress and singer Selena Gomez, a Facebook presence, donations by mobile text and a new iPhone app. Last Halloween, $4.4 million was raised to help vulnerable children. Since it began the program has raised nearly $160 million.

Among the Allison family members, Thomson, 65, became a mother of two and an artist. She has two grandsons and lives near Chicago. Mickey Allison, 64, ran an art gallery in Minneapolis before moving in with her parents 10 years ago. She has no children. Monroe Allison, 62, is a salesman living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has two children and two grandchildren. Of course, all the Allison offspring have trick-or-treated for UNICEF.

Clyde Allison died last year. Mary Emma Allison died Wednesday at her home in Lowell, Ind., surrounded by her family. She was 93. 

Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, said Mary Emma Allison "leaves a legacy born of her kindness and her fundamental belief in the dignity and worth of all children. 

"What began as a simple wish to turn Halloween into something 'good' resulted in the nation's longest-running youth service program. Because of the Allisons, untold numbers of children's lives have been saved and improved over the last 60 years. And generations of American children have been inspired to follow their hearts and supplement their Halloween candy collection with something much more important," Stern said.

The family has established "The Mary Emma Allison Memorial Fund." Donations, payable to U.S. Fund for UNICEF, can be made online or by calling 1-866-237-2224 toll free.

Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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