J. Calvitt Clarke, Presbyterian minister, veteran promoter of relief for peoples displaced by the ravages of the First World War, and a gifted publicist and fundraiser, was on his way from New York to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late summer of 1938. On the train he ran into a friend, Dr. J. Stewart Nagle, a former Methodist missionary with years of experience in the Far East. Nagle was founder of a school in Singapore for Chinese boys orphaned as a result of the Japanese aggression against China.
As the train clicked noisily down the tracks, and warm air and soot poured in through the open windows, the two friends found themselves discussing a subject that had been preying on both their minds in recent weeks: the news of atrocities, famine, bombings, and the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians -- particularly children -- in the wake of the Japanese invasion of China. It would later be estimated that between one and two million Chinese children died between 1937 and 1940 alone.
Horrors like these, and the yearning to do something about them, were nothing new to Clarke. Since his college days before World War I, he had organized comittees in support of Near East Relief, an agency that sent food and clothing to war-torn Armenia and Syria. In the early 1920s, he had joined that organization and traveled to Mt. Ararat and Palestine, witnessing firsthand the suffering of war and famine victims. Time and again, what affected him most was the children.
By 1932, the bleakest year of the Depression in the United States, Clarke again turned his concern for children in need into action. With Dr. Nagle and another colleague, Dr. John Voris, he co-founded a unique new organization, Save the Children Federation, to aid children in Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the most impoverished regions of the country. He served as southern director of Save the Children, from his home base in Richmond, Virginia, until 1937. Since that time, Save the Children evolved into one of the world's well-known international child sponsorship agencies, similar in many ways to the institution Clarke was momentarily to bring to life -- Christian Children's Fund.
The train pulled into Chambersburg, and the two men went their separate ways. But as he walked the shady streets of the quiet little town, Clarke could not get one question out of his mind. It stayed with him as he conducted his business, and was still nagging at him when he ran right into the very person who might help him answer it. As Clarke passed a barbershop, there was his friend Nagle once again, heading down the sidewalk toward him.
It seems that Nagle had not been able to shake their earlier conversation either.
"You know, "Champ," said Nagle, using a nickname Clarke had acquired in college. "I've been thinking about our conversation on the train this morning -- about what's going on in China."
So had Clarke. Without hesitation, he asked the question that had been gnawing at him. "Do you feel that Americans are doing all they can to help?"
There was a pause, and then Nagle lifted one eyebrow and smiled. "You're a good fundraiser, why don't you do something about it?"
Clarke didn't answer right away. He stood there, staring into the window of the barbershop. What he saw was his own reflection, staring back at him: nothing extraordinary or particularly impressive, nothing to suggest the man of vision and dedication whose work would eventually improve the lives of millions of children and their families all over the world -- just a tallish, balding man of 51 in a loose-fitting suit, slightly stooped, with a long nose and a rather shy expression.
"All right," he said quietly, glancing back at his friend. "I will."
Clarke returned to his home in Richmond, and with his wife's help he launched a nationwide appeal for funds in behalf of China's children, working out of his home and spending his own money for stationery and postage. Nagle was right: the shy Presbyterian had a knack for raising money, for convincing people, even during the Depression, to share with children on the other side of the world who were in desperate need. He'd been honing this talent since the 1920s when, among other things, he organized the largest-ever collection of used clothing in behalf of Armenian and Syrian refugees.
Now, in 1938, with the suffering of China's children heavy on his heart, Clarke set in motion a deceptively simple fundraising strategy that was to prove immensely successful for more than 50 years. By 1991 his scheme would produce more that $100 million annually in support of suffering children throughout the world. And also in that year his creature -- Christian Children's Fund -- would pass the $1 billion mark in funds transmitted from the United States to other nations caring for homeless children, assisting families in distress, and in building up entire communities in poverty-stricken areas so that the children of the world might not only survive, but also find meaningful places in their own societies.
Clarke's "secret weapon" was individual, person-to-person child sponsorship (originally called "adoption") - no government funds, no ideological agendas, a minimum amount of bureaucracy -- just individual people who cared about others and werer willing to send small amounts of money on a regular basis to help and individual child in need. This individual-help system and a direct sponsor-to-child relationship, would eventually expand to encompass the child's entire family and community.