About 500 people carrying lighted candles braved the early evening chill last night to march from the Washington Monument to the Ellipse in support of the first World Summit for Children, scheduled to take place next weekend at the United Nations.
The procession capped a four-hour rally marked by music and impassioned speeches from a wide variety of people, including Hollywood celebrities, elected officials and Janet Museveni, the wife of the president of Uganda.
Event organizers said more than 1,200 vigils were held worldwide, including in each of the 50 states. President Bush attended a vigil in Baltimore.
Many of the speakers cited the same grim statistic: that each day 40,000 children die worldwide, primarily of hunger and preventable diseases.
Organizers said they hope the summit, which is to be attended by Bush and more than 60 other heads of state, will spur leaders to attack the problems.
"My biggest fear is that there will be a lot of rhetoric, politicking, photo opportunities, and no plan of action," said Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger and one of the speakers at the rally.
Hall said a report by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund concluded that spending $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year could save 10 million of the 14 million children who die annually of malnutrition and disease.
Hall has introduced legislation to increase U.S. funding for United Nations immunization and food distribution efforts from $225 million to $275 million in 1991, and to $600 million by 1996.
He said he intends the legislation as a catalyst for the United States to take the lead in eradicating deaths of children due to hunger and disease, saying multinational banks and other nations need to contribute as well.
"This is an issue we can handle," Hall said. "If President Bush worked the phones like he did for the Iraqi embargo so successfully for the children, we could really make a dent in the number of children who die."
Rick Leach, an organizer of the rally, said the activities that led to yesterday's event have already had one positive effect for District children. On Saturday, more than 100 youngsters were immunized at the Reeves Municipal Center during an open clinic conducted by rally organizers and the D.C. Department of Public Health, he said.
The District's health commissioner, Georges C. Benjamin, said free immunizations would continue to be offered for four hours every Thursday beginning at 5 p.m. at the Reeves Center, 14th and U streets NW.
Among the celebrities who spoke and marched were actors Valerie Harper, Raul Julia and Jimmy Smits and hair stylist Vidal Sassoon.
They urged marchers to write their legislators and Bush to demand that they act to eradicate disease and hunger among children.
Several people who participated in the vigil said they believe their support and the children's summit could make a difference.
"This is a big show of support," said Lauren Cotter, a student at George Washington University. "It's a first step. What people do afterwards is up to them."