| Sep 15, 2021

Blechman Priority One

Wil Blechman

Dr. Wil Blechman, 89, 1990-91 Kiwanis International president who embodied the Kiwanis motto of serving the children of the world, died peacefully Wednesday, September 15, at his home in Florida.

Blechman will be remembered as the inspiration behind the Young Children: Priority One program that led to relationships between Kiwanis and UNICEF and evolved into worldwide service projects focusing on the health of children. He is credited with paving the way for Kiwanis to become involved with the Iodine Deficiency Disorders Worldwide Service Project and The Eliminate Project, both global efforts to provide healthy growth opportunities for babies and children up to age 5.

Many of the projects he helped develop for Young Children: Priority One are among the service projects most popular with Kiwanis clubs today, including giving trauma dolls to children in hospitals, diaper drives, providing funding and help for early childhood education centers and buying child-size equipment for pediatric ambulances and trauma treatment rooms in hospitals.  

Wil Blechman gives us an animated look at how Young Children: Priority One came to be.

“No single Kiwanis International president has had a greater impact upon the global organization than Dr. Blechman,” noted Stan Soderstrom, executive director of Kiwanis International. “It was his vision that launched our young children service priority which, in turn, led to our global service projects to virtually eliminate iodine deficiency disorders and our more recent work to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus. His contribution has impacted the lives of millions of children, mothers and families around the world.”

Wil Blechman Baby Shower Blechman joined the Kiwanis Club of North East Miami-Dade in 1962 and began a journey that spanned seven decades, working and advocating for children and serving his club and district in multiple roles. His year as president of Kiwanis International allowed him to travel the world and experience firsthand the issues faced by children. His first inclination was to create a program to focus on helping children of middle school age; he moved to early childhood when multiple experts — including his wife, Rachael — advised him that would be too late to have the desired impact.   

After his term as president, he returned to his medical practice as a rheumatologist but left after two years to become a full-time advocate for children, saying he was no longer satisfied by his medical practice.  

“The legacy of Dr. Blechman is best described as one that placed our most vulnerable population as a priority,” said Pam Norman, chief philanthropy officer at Kiwanis International. “Advocating for the health of young childrens’ brain development, nutrition, vaccines and early childhood learning was at the core of his Kiwanis work over a span of nearly 60 years. As a global leader, Dr. Wil inspired members worldwide to take action on behalf of young children, and Kiwanis International is a better organization due to his visionary thinking.”

Wil Blechman on stage at the 2015 Kiwanis International Convention in Indianapolis 

blechman_at_100th Blechman researched early childhood development to guide Young Children: Priority One and provide information to clubs to help them structure services and programs for early childhood education. His focus was on finding ways to support families in need with projects that provided important essentials in development, such as vaccinations and reading skills. Children who did not have those advantages were more likely to fail in school and find their way to the juvenile justice system and, ultimately, the welfare system, creating a lose-lose situation. Without early intervention and access to a healthy environment, Blechman said, one-fifth of children grow up in poverty and one-third grow up in ignorance, through no fault of their own.  

Among his many Kiwanis honors, Blechman was a George F. Hixson Fellow Diamond-level 4 and had received the Tablet of Honor and Centennial Award from the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. He was a charter Walter Zeller Fellow and a member of the Heritage Society.

Blechman was a graduate of the Medical College of Virginia and completed his internal medicine residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. He did a fellowship in rheumatology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. He practiced medicine until 1994. He also taught at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami in Florida.

After retiring from the practice of medicine to focus on Young Children: Priority One, Blechman was appointed health officer for the state of Florida from 1995-96 and was a senior consultant to the Departments of Health and Children and Families, also in Florida. Blechman followed results of research on early childhood brain development and recognized the importance of supporting optimal brain development, especially during the prenatal period and through early childhood. As these results became more well known, Blechman began speaking to educate the public and professionals on their roles in making this happen. He gave presentations to juvenile court judges in Miami, state child welfare workers and early childhood education groups in Florida, among others. He also spoke at workshops at Kiwanis International conventions and headlined the Early Childhood Summit at Kiwanis International in Indianapolis in 2014.

He was accepted as one of ReadyNation’s Brain Science Speakers and was named a Lifetime Achiever by Marquis Who’s Who in 2016. He was honored for his child advocacy by the Lawton Chiles Foundation Board, and he was inducted into the Virginia Commonwealth University Alpha Omega Alpha Honorary Medical Society Chapter for his life’s work as an alumnus. He was a member of the board of directors of the Lawton Chiles Foundation.

Memorial services will be announced later.


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