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On Deadline: Palo Alto's 'UN store' struggling to survive in a new world

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Apr 19, 2011

The diminutive United Nations Association store -- a landmark in downtown Palo Alto for more than a third of a century -- is struggling for survival against changes in shopping habits and has already become an endangered species.

The situation is serious, potentially fatal for the little store, now approaching its 37th year.

Only a handful of such stores (perhaps four or five) exist around the nation, compared to up to 50 or so several decades back, according to William "Bill" Frye, a retired physicist and husband of the store's founder, the late Betty Frye, who died in 1990.

"Betty gets all the credit," he said, adding that United Nations Association in Palo Alto was formed in the 1950s but that Betty Frye felt that the association needed more visibility and decided the store would be the way to get that. It became a project of hers when their two children left for college, he recalled.

"It was really a non-political attempt to get exposure" for the work the United Nations was doing to benefit children and adults around the world, Frye recalled of the initial store, an even smaller shop on the second floor of a building on Ramona Street. After about a year, the store got its storefront location on Emerson Street, just north of Hamilton Avenue, a neighbor of Bell's Bookstore and Mac's Smoke Shop.

When it was created in 1974, the primary vehicle for aiding children worldwide was UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund -- originally the UN Children's Emergency Fund when it was created in 1946 to aid young victims of World War II.

In some quarters, everything about the United Nations is political. But helping children for many seems to override feelings about broader political or international issues.

For decades, people went to the Palo Alto store to buy their UNICEF Christmas and special-event cards, or imported woodcarvings, baskets, artwork and weavings from around the world. The shop also boasts a collection of tiny flags from countries around the world.

But over the years it became easier for people to buy UNICEF cards online, and the awareness of the store and its eclectic offerings -- many of them oriented toward children -- faded from community awareness as generations and the population changed.

Frye, who's career in science and physics is recognized nationally and beyond, said children in Palo Alto would trick or treat for UNICEF at Halloween.

Worldwide, UNICEF operates on a $2.781 billion budget. Its assistance to children and families includes basics such as clean water, nutrition, health care, emergency relief, education and general protection. Most funding is from governments and foundations, but a significant portion comes from an estimated 6 million individual donors, according to the UNICEF USA website.

Yet the organization tragically estimates that about 22,000 children worldwide die daily from preventable causes.

"We believe that number should be zero," it states boldly -- and perhaps unrealistically -- on its website, www.unicefusa.org.

But the Palo Alto store is still hanging on, run entirely by volunteers. Other surviving stores are in Tucson, Ariz., Lansing, Mich., and Berkeley.

Shelly Kosak, the store's volunteer coordinator for the past decade (one of six volunteers who manage the store), recalled the many hundreds of volunteers who have spent time in the store since 1974: "I personally trained hundreds" over the past decade, she said.

There is a "Betty Frye Award" to recognize those who make special contributions to improving the world.

Yet the Palo Alto store is facing such serious financial difficulties that its existence is threatened, she and others fear.

She invites folks to drop by and check the place out, share in its sense of goodwill and international touches and say hello before they might need to say goodbye.

Comments (10)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sean
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm

If UNICEF wants to protect innocent children, it should be leading the charge to use DDT in African malarial zones. Between 1-2 million African children die each year, because DDT is banned, but UNICEF dithers.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:22 pm


Good store--we hope it continues

They could stock and sell copies of recent UN reports--like the Goldstone Report and those on Dafur


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sean
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm

When UNICEF does not support DDT use to prevent the deaths of 1-2 million African children per year, a real holocasut, how can UNICEF be supported?

Maybe Jay Thorwaldson can explain this construct. It does have a moral and ethical compnent to it, at least to my mind.

Jay?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Apr 20, 2011 at 8:32 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Sean --
DDT is a great killer of mosquitoes, but in the 1970s it was discovered to also be a long-lasting poison that, among other things, was threatening bird species (such as the brown pelicans of California) by causing their egg shells to be thin and fragile. I never quite figured out why some folks felt a deep emotional tie to DDT, as there are other effective sprays and means of controlling mosquito populations. You might want to go back and do a bit more research on DDT before making it the litmus test of support for the UN or any other program.

I do feel strongly about the malaria issue, having just visited a small village near Lake Victoria, "Yimbo," a couple of years ago where about half of the 301 students in the elementary school were orphans being raised by relatives or friends of the family. Of those orphans, we were told the cause of their parents' deaths was about half malaria and about half HIV/AIDS.

We spoke with one grandfather raising two grandsons at the home of his late son and daughter-in-law. We asked the cause of death. "Natural causes," he replied. He explained that autopsies cost money so few have them done. This was a disturbing revelation, because if that is the pattern it means the statistics of causes of death in Third World countries are based not on autopsies but on estimates, really guesstimates.

The people of Yimbo -- adults and children -- were heartwrenchingly wonderful. What was infuriating was that for the cost of a few jet planes for the Kenyan military so much more could be done to fight disease, bring clean running water to villages such as Yimbo (which we're helping to do) and improve education and health care. You can see the welcome we received on YouTube, starting with parents and ending with the kids and teachers: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RGkW5FJngI and you can Google "Friends of Yimbo" or go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWHvGB9qX_k&feature=related .

There are other local efforts to assist, such as the "Books for Africa" program based in Portola Valley.

I don't see how one can weigh support for such programs and people on the decades-old DDT issue, frankly.

-jay


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tea Party
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

Tea Party thinks UNICEF is a communist plot. Improving the health and education of 3rd world children means there will be more foreigners competing against the USA when they grow up.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sean
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

"I don't see how one can weigh support for such programs and people on the decades-old DDT issue, frankly."

Jay,

You need to do your own research on the DDT-Malaria issue in Afica. Malaria has been cut way back in countries which used DDT. Now those countries are threatened with economic boycotts from Europe, if they continue to try to save their children, with the continued use of DDT. We're not talking about bird eggs here, and btw, that was always a theory, but never proven under realistic conditions...the return of the Brown Pelican has many underlying explanations.

I fail to see how UNICEF, which purports to help children, can turn a blind eye to policies that kill them by the millions. This is a moral and ethical issue...and UNICEF must take a stand.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MacAcadamiaNut
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 22, 2011 at 11:13 am

I used to buy all my holiday presents in one fell swoop at the UNICEF store. Lots of unique and inexpensive items. I found a lot of great things for my story-telling projects.

I'm going to start shopping there again. Not sure why I stopped. I still admire their window displays. I guess I'm trying to get rid of stuff now, not acquire more.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2011 at 10:54 pm

I love this store and being able to support the good work of the U.N. right here. My girls especially love the cool earrings which they buy as gifts for their many friends.

Thank you for letting us know of their situation. We will go there soon.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 19, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I'm with Misha, DDT or no DDT. Thank you for alerting us to this. I try to spend as much $$ as possible in my own county, but this is a great store.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Meadow Park
on May 21, 2011 at 8:24 am

Agree with you Sean. The horrific damage done by Rachel Carson and her "Silent Spring" propoganda manufactured from ridiculous "research" has killed millions of innocent people, and caused millions more to suffer intermittent attacks of malaria.

Truly a scourge and a real tragedy.

The UNICEF programs sound good, but I no longer support them since they run into the same corruption as the rest of the UN.

I go Catholic Charities. All organizations have corruption, but I find they are the least corrupt, and the UN the most.


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