CLERGY CORNER: The Story of Jerry Sternin

Posted on 05 July 2018 by LeslieM

I am going to tell you today the story about Jerry Sternin, one man who is responsible for saving the lives of tens of thousands of children, not a generation ago, but on our very own watch. (He died in 2008.)

When Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam, the welcome was rather chilly. The government had invited his employer, “Save the Children,” the international organization that helps kids in need, to open an office in the country in 1990 to fight malnutrition. But the foreign minister let Sternin know that not everyone in the government appreciated his presence. The minister told him, “You have six months to make a difference.”

Sternin had traveled to the country with his wife and 10-year-old son. None of them spoke the language.

We were like orphans at the airport when we arrived in Vietnam,” he said. “We had no idea what we were going to do.”

Sternin had minimal staff and meager resources. And he knew that nobody wanted him.

The conventional wisdom was that malnutrition was the result of an intertwined set of problems. Sanitation was poor; poverty was nearly universal and clean water was not readily available. The rural people tended to be ignorant about nutrition.

That analysis was, in Sternin’s judgment, TBU — true but useless.

Millions of kids can’t wait for those issues to be addressed,” he said.

If addressing malnutrition required ending poverty, purifying water and building sanitation systems, then it would never happen — especially in six months, with virtually no money to spend.

Ignoring the experts, Sternin traveled to a local village and called together all the village’s mothers. He asked for their assistance in finding ways to nourish their kids better, and they agreed to help. As the first step, they went out in teams to weigh and measure every child in the village. Sadly, 64 percent of the children were malnourished.

He asked them, “Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?”

The women nodded and said, “Có, có, có.” (Yes, yes, yes.)

Then let’s go see what they’re doing.”

Sternin’s strategy was to search the community for bright spots. If some kids were healthy, despite their disadvantages, then that meant something important. Malnourishment was not inevitable.

Armed with that understanding, the mothers then observed the homes of the bright-spot kids, and, alert for any deviations, they noticed some unexpected habits. For one thing, bright-spot moms were feeding their kids four meals a day (using the same amount of food as other moms but spreading it across four servings rather than two). The larger twice-a-day meals eaten by most families turned out to be a mistake for children, because their malnourished stomachs couldn’t process that much food at one time.

The style of eating was also different. Most parents believed that their kids understood their own needs and would feed themselves appropriately from a communal bowl. But the healthy kids were fed more actively — by hand if necessary. The children were even encouraged to eat when they were sick, which was not the norm. What is more, these parents were washing the hands of their children before eating.

Most interesting, the healthy kids were eating different kinds of food. The bright-spot mothers tossed in sweet-potato greens, which were considered a low-class food, to their children’s dishes. They also put into the kid’s rice tiny crabs which they found in the Vietnam rice paddies and were considered adult food.

These dietary improvisations, however strange or “low class,” were doing something precious; adding sorely needed protein and vitamins to the children’s diet. Without knowing it, these parents provided important nutrients for their children: protein, iron and calcium.

Jerry Sternin refused to make a formal announcement, knowing that it would be futile. Instead the community designed a program in which 50 malnourished families, in groups of 10, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food together. The families were required to bring sweet-potato greens and crab. The mothers washed their hands with soap and cooked the meal together.

Dozens of experts had analyzed the situation in Vietnam, agonizing over the problems—the water supply, the sanitation, the poverty, the ignorance. They’d written position papers and research documents and development plans, but they hadn’t changed a thing.

Six months after Sternin’s visit to the Vietnamese village, 65 percent of the kids were better nourished, and they stayed that way. Within a short time, the program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. Malnutrition in Vietnam was diminished by 85 percent!

Today we face a battle where children are starving right here in America. Not physically but spiritually and morally!

We must find the bright spot kids in our society, learn from them and do everything in our power to stop the starving children. We must devote ourselves consistently to our children’s health and well-being. By studying each child and giving them what they need individually, we will change the future for our children.

Rabbi Tzvi Dechter is the director of Chabad of North Broward Beaches, located in the Venetian Isle Shopping Center at 2025 E. Sample Rd. in Lighthouse Point. For all upcoming events, please visit


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