Honors students learn of Childhelp's impact

Childhelp founder and former Hollywood actress Sara O’Meara left stardom to pursue humanitarian work.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson strayed from their path of stardom under the beaming lights of Hollywood to the gloomy and rainy alleyways that would ultimately change the course of their careers — but most of all their hearts.

O’Meara's community work began when she started an orphanage in Tokyo 63 years ago.

“While we were busy acting in films and being featured in magazines, a much more powerful plan with a much better purpose was defining our real future,” O’Meara said. “This was one of the first times God spoke to me.”

It led the pair to found Childhelp, which has impacted more than 11 million children worldwide since 1959. O’Meara, its chairman and CEO, was a speaker during Honors College Service Week, held in conjunction with Honors VOICES this year at Grand Canyon University.

Honors College Dean Dr. Breanna Naegeli thought Childhelp's entrepreneurial spirit and passion was a great fit for the annual Service Week, where O'Meara debuted the Honors College Canvas the Community Campaign.

“They willingly left prominent careers in Hollywood and chose to explore this humanitarian effort,” said Naegeli. “They are the perfect spokespeople to share how service is not just a one-day event, but rather, it is a lifestyle that should be integrated into your character, daily practice and even into your vocation - which is what our campaign is about. We wanted to expose our students to other nonprofits and all the ways they can support our local community today and beyond.”

O’Meara met her co-founder, Yvonne Fedderson, on the set of a 1950s sitcom, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

After the Korean War, O’Meara and Fedderson were chosen out of 500 applicants for a United States government-sponsored goodwill tour and traveled to Japan, Korea and Okinawa in 1959 to entertain American troops. When they arrived in Tokyo, it was shut down by a severe typhoon, and they were ordered to stay in their hotel rooms. Overcome with curiosity after several days, the pair snuck out — a decision that altered their future.

When they ventured outside, O’Meara and Fedderson saw a group of children huddled together, desperate for warmth under an awning torn off from the storm. The children's feet were raw from the pavement from lack of protective shoes, and their tattered clothing was sopping wet and clung to their hungry bodies. The children stared at the women, not knowing that their future also was about to be altered.

Sara Ritterling, granddaughter of Sara O’Meara and a GCU alumna, was in awe of how the campus has changed since she graduated in 2019.

The actresses were angels in disguise.

“We ran to them and cuddled as many as we could under our coats," O'Meara said. "We quickly flipped through our Japanese-to-American dictionary and discovered these children were orphans and brought back all 11 to our hotel to shelter them, bathe them and clothe them.”

The next morning, the duo went door-to door to orphanages but were turned away by each one. At the sight of the last orphanage, the children wept.

“We discovered that the children were turned away from that orphanage because they did not have a birth certificate, as they were half-American and half-Japanese,” she said. “The orphanage would take no government funding, and they were known as 'throw-away children.'

"America said, ‘They’re not ours,’ and Japan said, ‘They’re not ours,’ so they were children living unclaimed.”’

When word spread about what the two starlets were doing, more than 100 more "mixed-blood" children were left on their doorstep. There was nothing left to do but start their own orphanage, which they called International Orphans. Through fundraising they built four orphanages in Japan and five orphanages, a school and a hospital in Vietnam.

O’Meara talks with Honors students eager to contribute to the growth of the Global Village.

What started as an orphanage 63 years ago for 11 children has become Childhelp, the largest and longest running nonprofit for abused and neglected children all over the world. Childhelp is expanding to The Global Village, and the partnership with GCU invites students to volunteer.

“The most exciting part is that God put a vision in my mind and passion in my heart, and we’ve found a way to replicate all that we are for generations to come. That’s where we will be needing some of you,” O'Meara said, looking at the students.

The organization plans to build the Childhelp Global Village 15-20 minutes from GCU's campus. The safe haven, home and enriching environment for at-risk youth also will house an international center for excellence to teach and showcase top practices for child health care.

O’Meara speaks with freshman Ashlyn Janzen about volunteer opportunities with ChildHelp.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey referred to GCU when O'Meara and Fedderson asked who would be the best partner for the project.

“We think this university is the greatest because it is a God-driven university — and it shows,” O’Meara said. “I’m blessed that God brought President Brian Mueller and I together for this partnership and that this passion is coming into fruition.”

O’Meara referenced the Scripture for those whose dreams may not have turned out the way they envisioned but are really a blessing in disguise.

“For a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversities.” (1 Corinthians 16:9)

She closed with a message for the dreamers in the crowd.

“Strive for your dreams, but don’t get discouraged if they get delayed because there is blessing – a goal reshaped into a new calling like Yvonne’s and mine,” O’Meara said. “Divine love and all of God’s power is within you just waiting for you to activate it. All you have to do is turn on that switch.”

Contact staff writer Lydia P. Robles at 602-639-7665 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU News: Honors College expands service to community

GCU News: Honors College surpasses 1,000 graduates

GCU News: Degrees of leadership: Honors College staff unites


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Bible Verse

Jesus taught his disciples, saying: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

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