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How UNICEF became a Halloween treat

By Téa Leoni, Special to CNN
Téa Leoni pictured with her brother in their Halloween costumes.
Téa Leoni pictured with her brother in their Halloween costumes.
  • Téa Leoni suggests that trick-or-treaters ask for UNICEF donations along with candy

  • Actress urges readers to gather up their spare change for a worthy cause

  • Small donations help keep children from dying of hunger and disease

  • Leoni's grandmother established the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and was its president

Editor's note: Téa Leoni is a U.S. Fund for UNICEF Ambassador. Her grandmother, Helenka Pantaleoni, founded the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Leoni was a member of the 2007 Blue Ribbon panel for CNN Heroes.

(CNN) -- I grew up under the impression that I was the best trick-or-treater in the whole wide world, because my grandmother invented it!

The whole thing was her idea! My grandmother and her friend UNICEF started it way back when she was born in the early 1500s. I thought UNICEF must be a pretty cool lady if she was hanging out with my grandmother.

Occasionally I'll ask people if they know about UNICEF, and sometimes they don't. But if I then mention the little orange Trick-or-Treat boxes on Halloween, suddenly everyone knows UNICEF.

We grew up carrying those Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF boxes on Halloween night, and now our kids do. These days, the candy bags may be fancier than pillowcases, and the costumes may come from the store, but the orange boxes remain the same.

In 1950 when Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF began, kids simply decorated old milk cartons to collect change. The idea was as simple then as it is today: On Halloween, besides asking for candy, why not also ask for UNICEF donations? Nothing that might sting, nothing big -- just the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that normally languish behind the couch, in old winter coats, on the floor of the car, or in the good ole spare-change-bowl-by-the-door. The money that falls through the cracks -- so American kids may raise a little money for their peers who are suffering, far away from costumes and candy.

Since Halloween 1950, that "simple plan," that "nothing big," has raised more than $144 million for UNICEF. That's $144 million in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters!

For many kids who are threatened by disease, natural disasters and war in places like Somalia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and too many other developing countries, this spare change has meant the difference between thriving and merely surviving, health and illness, even life and death.

In fact, the $144 million in small change has contributed to some remarkable news: About 50 years ago, the number of children who died every day from preventable causes before their fifth birthday was more than 50,000. Three years ago, that number was 25,500.

Despite a recession, despite the continuing effects of a global food crisis, despite other seemingly unbeatable odds, that number has now dropped to 24,000. Trick-or-treaters like you and me, your kids and mine, and members of civic groups like Key Club, can feel some pride that we have helped make this happen.

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But the appalling fact remains: 24,000 children die every day from preventable causes like hunger, measles, pneumonia and tetanus. The vaccines, medicines and technologies that can prevent and treat such illnesses already exist. Not one child should die from these illnesses in the year 2009.

It's projected that Americans will spend about $4.75 billion on Halloween this year, buying everything from candy and costumes, smoke machines and life-size inflatable lawn ornaments. But I bet that this year, like last year and many years prior, there's still change behind that couch and in those old coats.

We need that simple plan: A "nothing big" again this year. Not only to help those children, but to teach our own kids. We can get 24,000 down to zero. And we can show our kids that they can make a difference; that every penny counts, that they can save a child and change the world. So they'll carry the boxes now, you and I can fill the bowl by the door to the brim and be ready, and this year Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF can make that change.

It turns out that although my grandmother did establish the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and was president for over 25 years, and while she was a great lady, she did not, in fact, invent Halloween. Or trick-or-treating. She just perfected it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Téa Leoni.