In the summer of 2011, I was fortunate to take a trip to Southeast Asia. Asia is an inspiring continent, filled with fascinating people whose lives, I discovered, are inconceivably different from mine. I met people who live on tiny floating boats, in rivers filled with dark, brown water, and people living in shanties on the sides of dusty, dirt roads.
Everything I heard about Asia before my trip didn’t prepare me for the monstrous culture shock I felt when I saw the extreme poverty that people live in on my planet. In rural villages, I saw wells and school buildings that had been donated by foreigners. I began to understand the power of change on any scale and decided to raise money in any way I could. My interest in raising money reached its tipping point when I met two girls about my age in a village in Laos, an impoverished country nestled between Vietnam and Thailand. Those girls seemed so similar to me, yet our opportunities are so painfully different.
Our guide in Laos told us we could help by donating to the Government Orphanage in Luang Prabang, a town in Laos. My family and I visited the orphanage and met some of the children. They showed us the wooden planks they sleep on, due to overcrowding. They also told us they are only able to eat two small meals a day. Most children in these orphanages receive one meal a day so these children, outrageous as it sounds, are lucky to have two meager meals. After seeing the orphanage and the conditions the children live in, I realized I could connect my then upcoming bat mitzvah with my fundraising ideas.
I began to brainstorm ways to raise money. I thought about bake sales, but realized they wouldn’t bring in the amount of money I wanted to raise. I thought about soliciting donations, but that didn’t seem right. I wanted to do something myself, not have quickly scrawled checks handed to me.
My mom reminded me about a project I had started the year before. That project had consisted of making duct tape tote bags from scratch and selling them. The idea took hold and a duct tape-bag-making factory was born in my living room. I began my project in August; my bat-mitzvah was in November. My goal was to make 50 bags in about four months. I diligently made at least a few bags a week for a while and after deciding the production wasn’t going fast enough, I enlisted my family and friends to help. I also took orders and asked people their color preferences.
By the day of my bat mitzvah I had around forty bags that were ready to be sold and had already sold about five per-ordered bags. Not fifty, but close. In my D’var Torah, I mentioned my mitzvah project and asked people to buy the bags, which were sold during my celebration. It was a success. Nearly every single bag sold! I raised around $4,100. Because we are committed to this project and determined to follow through, my family and I went back to Laos this summer to purchase items for the orphanage. $4,100 can go an extremely long way in a country such as Laos. I used the money to buy 800 textbooks, 3500 notebooks, 600 pairs of underwear, bras for 250 girls, sanitary napkins, soap, toothpaste, combs, packs of crispy noodles, pens, pencils, protractors, and erasers.
Knowing that I am really changing people’s lives gives me a sense of fulfillment that I don’t think I could have obtained otherwise. My project has helped me understand what becoming a bat mitzvah really means: taking initiative and being the change you wish to see in the world.
Nora Salitan is not making bags at this time, but she is accepting donations for the orphanage and is planning to return to Laos next summer. To make a contribution, contact her at Laosmitvahproject1@gmail.com.
And for a sneak peek at another Simcha project, click here.