It’s late October, which means that millions of kids across the United States are getting ready for Halloween, the annual holiday celebrated each year on Oct. 31. Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain over 2,000 years ago, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. The word itself means “hallowed evening,” which was eventually shortened to “Halloween.”

Today, the most common Halloween activity is children ringing doorbells in your community, dressed in costumes, to ask for candy, commonly known as trick-or-treating. Other festive activities include throwing or attending Halloween costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories and watching horror films.

The beloved tradition of trick-or-treating on Halloween began in the United States in the 1920s, and has gained in popularity ever since. In 1947, Clyde Allison, who was a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania, and his wife Mary Emma Allison, a teacher, came up with the idea to ask children to trick-or-treat for charity. During Halloween that year, Mary Emma looked at the swarms of children collecting candy for themselves, despite children around the world being in desperate need of basics like food, shelter and shoes. She thought, “How do we make this into something good?”

The next year, they did just that. The Allison family worked with Church World Service to ask kids to collect used shoes that could be repaired and sent to refugee children in war-torn Europe. The program resonated with children and their parents, and participation grew. Thanks to the collective, impactful efforts of the Allison family, the Church World Service graciously declined further aid after two years. Clyde and Mary Emma then began to search for another charitable organization to work with.

Shortly thereafter, a woman named Gertrude Ely, who was a wealthy philanthropist and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, organized a parade featuring children dancing in colorful traditional costumes behind a real, live dairy cow. The Allisons saw marchers holding signs that asked for donations to help the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) provide powdered milk for overseas children who were in urgent need of nutrition. Mary Emma was struck by this: an international children’s fund named UNICEF? This could be exactly the organization the Allisons were looking for. She found Gertrude Ely at the head of the parade and came away with Eleanor Roosevelt’s telephone number. A meeting was arranged at U.N. headquarters, and Trick or Treat for UNICEF was launched in 1950.

At the time, UNICEF was still a fairly new organization. It was only a few years prior, in December 1946, the United Nations General Assembly established an International Children’s Emergency Fund to provide urgent relief for children in war-ravaged countries and for children’s health in general. Aid was to be distributed without discrimination due to race, creed, nationality, status or political belief. The organization immediately got to work launching a supplementary feeding program for children and nursing and pregnant mothers in 13 European countries. Subsequent programs in the early years provided aid to refugee mothers and children in Asia and vaccinated millions of children against tuberculosis.

Today, UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories with a mission to put children first. UNICEF has helped save more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization by providing health care and immunizations, safe water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more. They continue to work toward the day when children no longer die from preventable causes and every child has a safe and healthy childhood.

The Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program is in its 69th year this season, having raised nearly $180 million since inception. Each year, millions of children go door to door in their Halloween costumes, carrying small, orange UNICEF collection boxes. They trick-or-treat for candy and also solicit small change donations from the houses they visit. The idea is to make Halloween more meaningful for children by collecting a ‘treat’ for themselves, as well as one for children in other countries. The small change is then donated to UNICEF. At the program’s inception, recipients were children in post-war Europe who were in need of basics like shoes and soap. Today, the program provides a wide range of relief for children around the world, including school supplies, water purification tables, vaccines and nutritional supplements.

Have you ever trick-or-treated for UNICEF? Perhaps as you are reading this, you recall participating in this program as a child. This cherished Halloween tradition has been passed on from one generation to the next. For many adults in the U.S., Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF was the very first time they learned they had the power to make a difference for others. As the premier “kids helping kids” program, Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF is a valuable teaching opportunity that parents can use to shape the future generation of active global citizens.

This year’s theme is “We Can All Be Heroes.” It was chosen to highlight how the platform offers participants the chance to be real super heroes and help children in need by collecting donations while they celebrate Halloween. The theme also focuses on the immense collective power of today’s young people. An incredible 1 in 10 Americans have participated in this program through schools, Key Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs and neighborhood organizations. UNICEF hopes to expand the number of heroes this year.

Wondering how you can participate this year? has everything you need to get started:

  • How to order trick-or-treat boxes
  • How to get your school or youth group involved
  • Tips on starting a trick-or-treat social media campaign
  • How to make a donation
  • FAQs

UNICEF also offers resources for educators including lesson plans, a letter to send home to parents informing them about the program and personalized certificates of completion.

This year, you can follow in the Allison family’s footsteps and make Halloween more than candy, a scary costume and a jack-o-lantern. It can mean life-saving vaccines, clean water and a better education for less fortunate children. A Batman or Wonder Woman costume isn’t necessary to be a hero. On Oct. 31, you too can be a hero and help kids in need around the world by Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF.

Photo credit: UNICEF USA