Mattel Inc. executive Joe Cristina has devoted more than a decade to providing support to children affected by HIV or AIDS.

Last year, with a $500,000 grant from Mattel, Cristina expanded his work beyond the United States to include South America and the Caribbean. The region has a high number of AIDS cases, but receives little support. So far, the organization has worked with 21 non-profits that provide care for children affected by AIDS in these regions.

"It's important to understand that we help not only those children who are infected with AIDS, but also those who are affected by AIDS," said Cristina, Mattel's vice president of worldwide trade shows, travel and meeting planning services, and founder of the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation. "There are an estimated 13 million children around the world that have been orphaned by AIDS. Those children need help."

Cristina embarked on his mission to help children in 1993, a few years after being diagnosed with HIV himself. Initially, Cristina kept his condition a secret, afraid of the stigma that was associated with the disease in the early 1990s. As the illness escalated, he could no longer cope with his stressful job at Mattel and decided to take a disability leave. He confided in Jill Barad, Mattel's president at the time.

The two had an emotional conversation and Barad encouraged Cristina to tell his coworkers about the disease. During the next few weeks, Cristina received numerous letters and phone calls from friends and coworkers, all voicing their support and offering help.

"At that point and time, I crystallized in my mind that I was faced with a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity to take all of this energy and support and focus it," Cristina said. "I knew there wasn't enough money going to children affected by AIDS and, being part of Mattel and having children as my customer, that was something I wanted to do."

With advancements in AIDS treatment, Cristina was able to return to his position at Mattel. But he maintained his dedication to the foundation. Taking advantage of his experience and connections within the industry, Cristina gained financial support from several child-oriented companies, including Toys "R" Us Inc., Walt Disney Co., and Nickelodeon, as well as his home base, Mattel.

Through the support of these companies, individual donations, and the foundation's fundraising events, Cristina has raised over $23 million, the majority of which is distributed to non-profit organizations supporting children from families impacted by AIDS.

Among these locally is Amigos Sin Barreras, a Redondo Beach-based organization that provides free food and hygiene items to children in the South Bay; Pasadena based Serra Ancillary Care Corp., which provides two hour arts and crafts sessions each month; and Camp Kindle Inc., a free summer camp located in Santa Clarita.

The foundation uses the remainder of the funds to organize special initiatives, such as the Dial-a-Kid Program, which provides low-income AIDS-impacted families with telephone service.

"The foundation has a lot of business people from Mattel, so we are very strategic on where our resources can take us," Cristina said. "We don't want to overextend ourselves by trying to meet every need, so we search for niches that aren't being funded. We discover unmet needs and help kids get the care that they need."

The foundation has helped nearly 100,000 children in the United States, and, since the beginning of the international initiative, another 21,000 in South America and the Caribbean.

"This cause is something that Joe cares about very deeply and he's been able to take that passion and translate it into touching the lives of so many children," said Deidre Lind, executive director of Mattel's Children's Foundation and Corporate Philanthropy.
"This organization has been extremely successful and so much of that is because of Joe's passion."

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