This blog post was submitted as an entry in the Teen Impact contest and awarded as a finalist.
The vast majority of people I meet have never heard of Malawi, let alone know it's one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In sixth grade, I began my work with a local nonprofit organization called Africa Bags. Now, four years later, I have continued and will continue my efforts selling village-made cloth shopping bags and book bags that not only sustain better income and lifestyles for Malawians, but also decrease the amount of paper and plastic bags Americans use every day.
On a volunteer trip to Malawi in 2009, I saw for myself the bare-to-the-bone lives and homes of the men, women, and children desperately trying to survive. We lived as they did; we slept on dirt floors, ate mashed corn, carried water on our heads a quarter mile to the village, and squatted over a hole that acted as a toilet. While staying in the villages, we gave the children their first soccer balls, painted their school, made desks to fill the empty schoolrooms, and tended to orphaned infants who had no one to hold them. However, the biggest thing we did was bring them hope. When we first arrived, all the villagers ran up to touch us, to hug us, to make sure we were real; white visitors were almost unheard of. They were amazed that people halfway across the globe cared about them.
Now, in 2012, with the help of Africa Bags, seven Malawian villages have transformed from subsisting on one meal a day to independently flourishing communities. Africa Bags doesn't just raise money and send it over; we teach the villagers a trade they can utilize by themselves to support their families. It's just like the saying goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Africa Bags has assisted numerous villages, but many more await aid. It's a small but effective organization, and seeing the change in every life I've helped is amazing. One person can truly make a difference, and I'm determined to create positive changes any way I'm able.
In eighth grade, I initiated an Africa Bags event at my school in Loveland, Colorado, my hometown and the birthplace of Africa Bags. After making several presentations and requests to the faculty leadership team and being denied a school-wide event, I found a teacher willing to sponsor an after-school assembly. I was hoping to raise awareness about Africa Bags, collect school supplies for the villagers, and perhaps sell a few bags. However, the event was much bigger than I anticipated. Over 30 kids attended, and we raised over $550 dollars in donations and sales, equivalent to 89,512 Kwacha, the currency used in Malawi. These kids, with no other prompting than a straight-forward description of Malawian life, helped every way they could. Many kids went to their lockers and grabbed their own school supplies, just so students an ocean away could have the tools to learn. I was stunned by how a simple half-hour seminar affected them.
Afterwards, a shy, mentally disabled boy walked up to me and presented a crumpled dollar bill. Eyes cast down, he mumbled, "This is all I have, but make sure it gets to the villagers." Knowing it would mean a lot, I asked him if he wanted to be a pen pal with a Malawian student, and he accepted enthusiastically. His delight was contagious. What I was doing wasn't just affecting people in Malawi; it was impacting people in America. That was the moment I knew I would continue changing the world around me.
My work with Africa Bags is centered on our motto "Buy a Bag, Save a Life." I understand Earth is all we have, so I am focused on creating solutions for the millions of hungry people and for our strained environment. With that goal in mind, my future plans are to keep Africa Bags expanding its reach by increasing our presence in our community, our schools, and eventually, our nation. In order to spread awareness locally, I joined my school's EcoClub, of which I am the freshman representative. Through EcoClub, I am creating Africa Bags and environmental events to present to my school and others throughout my community.
I want as many teens as possible to know that they can improve their life and the lives of villagers simply by purchasing a reusable shopping bag. It's up to my generation to show that we're all capable of doing good, and I am working to lead the way.
I am asking all of you to take that first step with me, and go to africabags.org to see what you can do to help change lives.