Ten trips to Africa in the past three years. Seven to Asia. Four to Latin America.
Yes, Modesto native Ann Veneman racks up gobs of frequent flyer miles as the executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations organization that aids children in 150 underdeveloped nations worldwide.
Do not mistake these trips for vacations -- working or otherwise -- though.
"I don't sleep well under bed nets," the 1967 Downey High grad said. "And I'm always taking malaria pills."
She's seen the results of humanity gone crazy. She's visited with young boys once kidnapped and turned into heartless murderers by rebels in places like Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These children must be deprogrammed and then reprogrammed to break the cycle of violence in their war-torn countries.
"Just innocent children snatched off the streets, given drugs and taught to fight," said Veneman, 58, during a visit to Modesto this week.
She's met young girls who were mutilated and raped by those same child soldiers and their villainous leaders. In Congo, where 4 million people died in the violence, she talked to a 12-year-old girl who had been raped by four soldiers. "She looked 9," Veneman said.
When Veneman asked what the girl wants to be someday, the girl's reply caught her by surprise. "I want to be a nun," the child said.
Veneman has met young mothers infected with HIV, who die at an alarmingly higher rate than women in developed nations, and whose children are at greater risk of perishing as well.
She's seen the poverty of Haiti, a 90-minute flight from the United States, where medical care and disease-preventing vaccinations are in perilously short supply.
"It's hard to believe a country that close to the U.S. is in such bad shape," she said.
Veneman can handle this depressing landscape because she knows her organization, with its $3 billion budget and staff of 10,000, is making strides in helping those in need. UNICEF is her most complex assignment yet because it is global, unlike her other jobs that all were in the United States.
"Of all the organizations I've run, this is the hardest," she said.
But then, she's never shied away from a challenge.
Veneman became Stanislaus County's first female deputy public defender in 1978.
She became the first female attorney on staff when she joined the firm of Damrell, Damrell and Nelson in 1980, later becoming the firm's first female partner.
She was the first woman to serve as deputy undersecretary of agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity Programs from 1989-91, during the George H.W. Bush administration.
She served as California's first female secretary of food and agriculture under
Gov. Wilson from 1995 to 1999.
And she became the first -- and only, thus far -- female U.S. secretary of agriculture, serving during President George W. Bush's first term. She ran the 111,000-employee department from 2001 to 2005.
Her secret to success? Ignoring what counselors often tell kids in schools.
"I always like to say one of the reasons I was able to do all these things is because I didn't have real solid goals," Veneman said. "Setting (career) goals blinds you from taking things that might come along the way. I couldn't have dreamed this whole thing."
Even the nightmarish parts she now sees overseas, though she believes conditions in some countries are improving.
A couple of years ago, she visited the southern Africa country of Malawi, whose people lack proper nutrition, medical treatment and education. The child mortality rate is more than 100 in 1,000.
The country literally is a petri dish for diseases including HIV/AIDs, which has made orphans out of more than 700,000 children.
"I was struck by the number of businesses alongside the roads building coffins," Veneman told the Modesto Rotary during a speech Tuesday afternoon. Rotary International has long been a supporter in the fight against polio. "That (the death toll) is going down now."
"It's difficult to see the poverty and suffering," Veneman said. "But I've also seen so much hope in places UNICEF goes. I've heard people fill their difficult lives with music and singing."
As for Veneman, she juggles her time at UNICEF's New York headquarters and generating awareness to the cause with her trips overseas.
And, on occasion, she'll sneak in a quick trip to Modesto -- the place she left 22 years ago but still considers home.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.