Happy Sunday everyone!
I’ve been working on #ServiceSunday blogs for a while but there is something about today’s post that has given me an extra spark. I’ve written about my experiences as a camper, a speaker, and a counselor at the RYLA Leadership Camp in previous blog posts. As a camper, it was a life-changing experience that showed me how to build a life of kindness, confidence, and love. As a speaker and later a counselor, I was energized by the ambitions of the campers I worked with.
Last year (June 2015), I spoke to an awesome group of campers about The Smile Project. Last year (June 2015) an incredible young woman named Siona Sharma was in the crowd.
We were able to connect recently and as I sat in my apartment listening to her story via Facetime, I was completely floored. Siona is the co-founder of an incredible government recognized nonprofit called Starts with Soap. She is one of the most articulate people I have ever spoken with and she presents herself in a very down-to-earth way. She has an incredibly mature outlook on life and an overflowing heart for service and taking care of others. Oh yeah, and she just turned 18 earlier this month.
Siona is a recent graduate of Seneca Valley High School in Harmony, Pennsylvania (my alma mater as well) and is headed to Georgetown in less than a month to study Health Care Management and Policy. She explained to me that while she is open to further education or teaching, she really aims to take a role at some sort of global health organization.
Siona: I want to do things for people on a large scale. Health care is something a lot of people don’t have access to but it’s kind of in the ground rules of what people need. And I don’t necessarily want to do it on a small, personal level. I want to do it on a large scale. I’m a macro thinker, haha, well that’s what I call it, so I prefer to work more large scale with projects and groups.
Siona is the kind of person who speaks with clarity and intelligence and though I could write pages on the inspiration I just took from our brief video call, I’ll let her do the talking so you can see for yourself. Without any further ado, ladies and gentleman: Siona Sharma
Organization: Starts with Soap
Liz: Let’s start in traditional Smile Project fashion: give me a “Happiness is!”
Siona: “Happiness is seeing happiness in other people. The only lasting happiness I’ve ever found was being able to do things for other people and being able to bring a smile to their face. I know that sounds so cliche, but truly I’ve noticed that I get the most happiness from doing things for someone else.”
Liz: Tell me a little bit about your organization
Siona: “We work to supply basic needs to underprivileged schools across the nation.
I was a Coca-Cola Scholar in Atlanta earlier this year. One thing we did was visit a rural elementary school in Atlanta. This school has 100% free lunch program and we were visiting to do a service project for them, painting murals on the walls, etc.
When we went to the bathrooms, we noticed that some of them were missing soap and/or soap dispensers. This wasn’t the summer. It was the middle of the school year, and there was no soap. We were painting the wall and that was cool, but if they don’t have soap, they don’t have soap. It really stuck with us.
We talked about that really big need and how it wasn’t being met by the district. What drove us to this project was seeing this happening, first hand, and realizing that nothing is stopping us from being the ones who are able to help them out.
Eamon Bracht, of Chicago, (pictured below with Siona) was a fellow Coca-Cola Scholar. He is my co-founder. Originally, our idea was to host a service project for the Atlanta school, but then people began reaching out to us. They would tell us how lots of schools near them had various basic needs issues as well. And once we got started, people kept reaching out.
We came up with the name “Starts with Soap” because our project literally started with soap. However, we want to reach beyond that. It’s been shaping itself as we go because initially we said we would supply “basic supplies” such as soap, hand sanitizer, etc. But “basic supplies” can even reach into books, technology - even computers are considered basic in an educational environment. We reached out to a few schools in the area near us and chatted with their principals. We asked what they were lacking and how we could help. If they don’t have the funds to do it, we want to help out.
My personal project that I’ve been focusing on is in a school in Detroit. We have a regional executive named Rose in that area and we had reached out to this school to see what they needed. They were in need of new books. But more than that, they were in need of guidance. Their reading program was terrible, so while we could use grant money to donate books to their school, that didn’t solve the issue of the curriculum they were currently using.
We talked more and more and realized that they program needed changes. The literacy rates in inner-city Detroit are bad and these individuals are getting their base education from school. They asked if we could help with the curriculum changes.
We got in touch with a professor at a neighboring university and had them develop a reading curriculum for them to implement using the books that we picked out. In the sense of this project, we gave them basic supplies, sure, but we are doing it creatively and in such a way that it has a lot of impact. It’s like that saying of “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day…”
We like our network to be comprised of student leaders because that’s where the creative ideas and unbounded motivation to do things comes from. We try to portray ourselves as something that is far reaching to our generation. It’s empowering youth in other schools to do what they can with education and it’s empowering the people working with them as well to make that sort of change. It’s kids working for kids - students working for students. It makes so much sense.
We do fundraising as well. August 7 - 13 is going to be a National Week of Giving for us that will turn into an annual event. There are seven different events taking place across the country. I’m hosting the Pittsburgh event and 20% of what people spend that day goes toward Starts with Soap. We also have Starts with Soap chapters in colleges and high schools (more on that below).
We try to do as much as we can in a focused effort.
Liz: What is the driving force behind what you do?
Siona: “Everyone (at Starts with Soap) already had a background working in service oriented things and working in community. That being said, this is the first thing that has empowered us not only as adults but as something that is leaving tangible changes and impact. In the past, whatever I have been doing has just felt like practice. Whether that’s Model UN or Youth and Government, they are all essentially just simulated efforts. This is an exciting because we’re actually doing what we have been preparing for our entire lives.”
Liz: What does “service” mean to you?
Siona: “To me, service is a two way street. You know you are helping the other party and doing things for them but at the same time I don’t think I’ve ever learned more than I have in the few months of working on Starts with Soap and in working for other people in general. It’s a symbiotic system of me working for them and them working for me and both of us learning from each other.
Service is people of the world lending a hand out to one another in a two way fashion. I don’t think it’s ever, ever one sided. And the moment you realize that it isn’t one sided, you are able to do so much more with it.
Liz: How can people get involved?
Siona: “It’s important for people to know that no effort is too small. We want people to start chapters, yes, but we also want people to get involved in every area of what we do. For example, we’re having a SummerFest event on August 12th (as part of the National Week of Giving) in Pittsburgh at Wildwood Highlands. That’s a fun way to raise money for Starts with Soap. We also do t-shirt campaigns to help with marketing. (Check out the links for that below).
You can help out in small ways by attending an event or supporting us by sporting a t-shirt, but if you want to be part of the movement, you can host an event yourself. You can host a project.
The biggest thing for us is youth starting a chapter. That creates a lasting impact. It’s more of a long-winded effort because that is essentially what we do but on your own local scale. We’ve set up a few already (10 or so) around the nation and they will partner with an underprivileged school in their area. We do a needs assessment and talk to the principal about what they do not have money to fund. From there, we design a program to implement for them. Each chapter should achieve some small goal each year while still understanding that some of the projects will be more long term. We have a starter pack of information (you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org) and that allows people to get involved immediately. It’s a lot of work, but that is how you make lasting impact.
Liz: Anything else you’d like to add?
Siona: “Whenever I spread the word or talk about Starts with Soap, my main goal is hoping that some kid somewhere sees this and says, “I hope I can do something like this.”
There’s never enough support. We have the means to do as much as we want to do. Do you want to do something big? We can work with you and we can make that happen.
Liz: Do you have a favorite quote?
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
This concludes another #ServiceSunday. The thing that perhaps stuck with me the most was Siona’s dedication to the project. We chatted briefly about how if you are doing what you love, it never feels like work. She talked about waking up and working on Starts with Soap for a few hours before lunch and while that doesn’t seem like much, it’s that level of commitment and dedication that has allowed their project to grow. That is how you shake the world.
I encourage everyone to spend some time on their website. Visit their Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Also, check out their awesome t-shirts. Purchases of this shirt help schools in West Virginia that were affected by flooding and purchases of this shirt support Starts with Soap on a National level. And of course, if you want more information about starting a chapter at your school, reach out to the Starts with Soap team at email@example.com.
As for me, I’ll see you next Sunday as I highlight another phenomenal example of humankind.
Looking to nominate an individual or organization that you know? Reach out to The Smile Project on social media or by filling out the contact form here.
Liz: Do you have any last advice?
Siona: “I think one of the biggest things is realizing that I could essentially be as good as I wanted to be, whether that was in academics, service, leadership, or whatever. Growing up, I think I would always just accept what other people said I could do. But once I saw that there are kids my age doing things like this...doing things bigger than me...doing things bigger than themselves, once I saw them doing these things and being so motivated at such a young age, I realized if they can then so can I.
That’s the biggest life lesson I’ve taken from the past few months.
If they can, then so can I.