Derrius Quarles is a “million-dollar scholar” from the south side of Chicago. It’s a rare juxtaposition, but simply uttering those words makes you realize that Derrius is a rare individual. Still in his early 20s, Derrius is proud to relate his “hero’s journey” (a journey he is still very much on) and hopes that his many experiences will inspire others who face their own uphill climbs.
From his bio: “As a product of the Illinois foster care system and the south side of Chicago, higher education did not seem like a feasible possibility for him. More accessible were the fleeting opportunities of the urban streets.” When Derrius was four years old, his father was murdered, and the following year he was taken away from his mother’s custody. “Traversing the foster care system for nine years, the challenges of the inner-city almost led him down a path of crime and fast money.”
Everything changed one morning in high school when a caring biology teacher said to Derrius: “You have so much potential, and yet you choose to waste it.” Those simple words were an awakening to Derrius. “Of course I can do it,” he thought. And he did. In just the next few years, he was awarded more than $1,000,000 in academic scholarships – an amazing feat for any student (the following video details his journey from childhood to college).
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Although there were many potential scholarships available when Derrius sought financial aid, there were no resources on how to apply effectively. Upon his college graduation, Derrius made it his mission to help other promising students tap the potential financial resources available for higher education. He founded Million Dollar Scholar, a social business that bridges the scholarship information gap and provides tangible resources to help students gain financial aid to fund their dreams. He talks about his business and “how-to” book here on CNN.
Million Dollar Scholar offers writing tips and free writing feedback, resume help and templates, simulated interviews, and more. With the tools and training necessary to have a winning shot in the “scholarship race” readily available, Derrius is attempting to make college more affordable for those who need it to be.
My sincere thanks Derrius for leading by example, for morphing your struggles into wins (both for you and others), and for taking the time to answer our questions.
The 10 questions:
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To create change in my community and the world by being a gentleman when difficult, a servant when needed, and a rebel when necessary.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
It has changed me in many ways. It has helped me identify the most important features of a personally fulfilled life. For instance, achieving personal goals like becoming the first in my family to gain a college education is amazing, but through helping other students do the same with Million Dollar Scholar, I have realized that being a catalyst to others' goals is much more challenging and rewarding.
Now, I cannot imagine giving effort to a profession that did not have this dynamic – catalyzing others – at its core. This work has shown me that entrepreneurship is not the paradise life so many websites, personalities, and organizations these days are promoting it to be to my generation. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I am a part of a generation being inundated with too much positivity when it comes to entrepreneurship.
Now this is Talking GOOD, so of course we rep the positive, but I realize now that there must be a greater balance in the message because the reality of entrepreneurship is that the struggle is real. It requires a tenacity and tolerance for risk that cannot be fully understood when you are only doing it part-time as a hobby or side-hustle. Thus, this work has helped me see that some things can only be fully comprehended from the inside looking out. I am more patient today than I was previously; I place greater value on being a leader than I do being in charge, and I owe all of this to the work I have committed myself to.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
I once wrote in my journal “to give selflessly is my selfish motive.” This statement not only rolled off the tongue well, but also it perfectly summarized what I receive from giving: joy. Like many changemakers, I derive a unique happiness from giving and am not ashamed to say that, especially giving things that cannot be easily quantified unlike money or time.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
Nelson Mandela is definitely a living hero for me, and if I had the privilege, I would ask him two questions: 1. What advice would your 30-year-old self provide to young leaders who want to create change in their local and global community? 2. What wisdom do you currently offer young leaders who want to create change in their local and global community?
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
Well, in the world of social entrepreneurship we could all use some more funding; it is surely no different with my goals at Million Dollar Scholar. However, greater than the funding, I would say quality business advisement and mentorship in the realms of business, scaling, and sustaining social impact, will be key resources in this arduous journey to growing Million Dollar Scholar into the first financially sustainable educational technology and services company focusing on financial accessibility of higher-ed. We are also currently looking for someone to manage our social media so we can increase awareness and enhance our visibility.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
How expensive does higher education have to become before we pause and realize that we have made something so integral to the progress of society inaccessible to the average citizen?
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
Well, humbly I have authored a book already, but it's a how-to for students looking to go to college for free; one can learn more about that here. Now it sounds like you are looking for a memoir-esque book title and that would be The Star Amongst Darkness.
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC?
Actually, this is something I have never shared in public. I only have one picture of my father in my possession. It is a picture I received when I was 15 years old. I keep the picture taped to the last page of my passport. For me, this is a very special place to keep it because I know that my father never had the opportunity to travel outside of the United States.
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Really, he did not have the opportunity to do many things because he was murdered in his early 30s. I often ponder what his dreams were – where did he want to go, what did he want to do, what was on his bucket list? Essentially, there is no right or wrong answer because I was so young when he was murdered that my memories of him are basically stories other people have told me, thus, the possibilities are endless.
I have traveled to 15 different countries in four years, and I have traveled with him by my side on every adventure. Even if he never wanted to go to any of those places (though I believe he did), I have dragged him along with me, and in my heart I feel that he would be both grateful and proud of me for it.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INSPIRATIONAL SAYING?
"The entire world will move for a person who knows where they are going."
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
QUESTION: What is your definition of failure? ANSWER: Accepting mediocrity when greatness is possible.
• This article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. Talking GOOD was launched in 2012 by Rich Polt, principal of the Baltimore-based PR consultancy Communicate Good, LLC. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, please fill out this form, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Were circumstances in his favor, Alfred Kinyua would have been happy to own a stone and mortar house like his neighbor's. But the primary school teacher could not afford the high cost of building materials.
He settled for a three-room house which he built with timber, a trend that conservationists link to a decline in Kenya’s forest cover.
These days however, he is inching closer to his 20-year-old dream, albeit in a green way.
At his spacious compound in Kiereni village, in Upper Eastern Kenya, piles of lean whitish blocks are stacked at the back of his house.
They will keep piling up until Kinyua is satisfied the pile of expanded polystyrene (EPS) panels – a new building technology being promoted in Kenya – is enough to start construction of his new single story home.
“I buy the panels in bits,” explained Kinyua. “This would not have been possible if I was using [stone] … because one has to buy in bulk.”
While architects describe the EPS technology as a "cheap" way for Kenyans living on the margins to own decent homes, conservationists say it’s also a way for Kenya to continue building without putting undue pressure on its forests.
At Kinyua’s village, elders boast that when they were growing up in the 1980s it was not possible to spot a neighbor roof because of the dense tree cover in the Meru countryside.
But appetite for quality housing meant that some like Kinyua’s neighbor – who owns a mansion – rushed to build comfortable homes at the expense of local ecosystems.
“In less than two decades after independence, there were [lots of] quarries due to mining of [stone],” explained Eustace Kathuni, an elder. “The trees were gone as people chopped them down to build homes.”
These days, the 30-kilometer [17-mile] stretch of road leading to Kathuni’s village is lined with a mix of wooden, stone, and mortar houses, and the village is home to the largest quarry in Eastern Kenya. People say the harvesting of natural resources has led to increasing environmental problems.
“There are a lot of mudslides and landslides due to destruction of the catchment areas,” Kathuni said. “We had very unique monkeys but not anymore because the migratory corridor was destroyed. There are no fish in the rivers while the African love bird has disappeared.”
But a change in building technology could help, its backers say – and could make Kenya’s housing boom greener.
EPS panels are assembled with a polystyrene core encased in a steel wire mesh and lined with fiber cement on both sides, according to Adriano Chimoyi, managing director of a construction company that the National Housing Corporation (NHC) has contracted to roll out green homes.
A bungalow built with the panels takes about 30 days to complete, a third of the time needed to build a stone house, he said – and can be done more cheaply, in part because of the panels are constructed from waste products.
“The technology is made with recycled materials from dumped petroleum products,” Chimoyi said. “It costs about 10 to 15 percent less to build a house with this technology.”
Gitonga Murungi, a conservationist lobbying for the adoption of green homes in Kenya, estimates that homes built with the Italian-developed EPS technology are stronger than houses built with quarry stones, and just as long lasting.
Because of the way blocks are joined, the houses are more earthquake-proof than traditional housing, he said, and the panels are insulating.
“The insulation regulates the temperature in the house,” Gitonga said. “When it is hot outside, it is cool inside the house. When it is cold outside, it is warm inside the house.”
Chimoyi said his company sells a panel home package that also comes with a biogas digester and solar panels to reduce energy costs and further reduce loss of forests to firewood.
A simple one-bedroom house starts at $1,000, including the renewable energy package, he said.
So far, about 30,000 panel houses have been built in Kenya since the technology was launched in 2011, and NHC, a government agency, says it is targeting to roll out about 150,000 housing units every year.
Some, however, question whether such homes are affordable enough in a country where poverty remains widespread.
Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, says it is understandable that a growing number of countries all over the world are keen to phase out the use of wood as a strategy to re-establish their forest ecosystems.
“But at the end of the day the new technologies may not be affordable to many of the struggling poor,” argued Steiner. “Trees actually grow and that is why nature provides livelihoods with a renewable resource called wood and timber.”
To deal with the cost problem, NHC says, it offers 75 percent advance building loans to individuals who are willing to use their land as collateral.
Officials say the agency is weighing the possibility of offering loans as well to organized groups, particularly of youths and women.
• Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
- Problem: There are an estimated 21 million people enslaved today, 4.5 million of which are in the sex industry.
- Barrier to Progress: Global human trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing organized crime in the world. There are many root causes and serious challenges, including oppressive cultural norms, gender inequality, poverty, and too few resources.
- Solution: Modern slavery is a global problem but it is solvable. Solutions include education, skills training, and social enterprise projects. Focusing efforts in these areas can help create next-generation change and a society that says no more to this heinous crime.
As a survivor of sex slavery, I have dedicated my life’s work to ending it.
To many people, the issue of slavery seems like a clear case of right and wrong. The reality is much more complicated. There are many root causes and serious challenges. But these challenges do not stop me from continuing to find solutions to eradicate slavery and empower its survivors as part of the solution.
A significant number of people believe that slavery ended in 1863 when, in fact, modern slavery exists in every corner of the globe. Not just in remote parts of Southeast Asia, but in your hometown, in your backyard. In America, there are 60,000 men, women, and children enslaved at this very moment.
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Global human trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing organized crime in the world. There are an estimated 21 million people enslaved today, 4.5 million of which are in the sex industry. Estimates for revenues in all forms of exploitation and slavery total upwards of $32 billion a year, and profits from sex slavery amount to nearly $10 billion.
In June 2013, the US State Department issued the most up to date Trafficking in Persons report, a global overview of the origins and scope of trafficking. In my country of Cambodia, a country that is still recovering from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the trafficking of women and girls continues to be widespread. Due to multiple factors, including poverty, corruption, gender inequality, and oppressive cultural norms, Cambodia has yet to tackle this problem head on. In 2013, Cambodia fell to the Tier 2 watch list, the report’s second-lowest rank, for failing to “demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year.”
The subordination of Cambodian women is not only the result of too few resources or a broken civil society, but also of belief systems handed down from generation to generation. Even today, women and girls are often taught to be subordinate, lack access to education, and are more likely to suffer from the effects of poverty. Many Cambodian males perpetuate domestic violence as their primary tactic for conflict resolution, and crime as their primary source of income.
This must end. My goal is to help to empower these women and girls, to provide them with solutions, to give them a voice and a choice in their lives—and to ultimately end slavery and exploitation. Some of these solutions include, education, skills training, and social enterprise through partnerships.
On Oct. 11, the International Day of the Girl, we proudly celebrated the opening of the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon, a social enterprise developed in partnership with The Estée Lauder Companies and our on-the-ground partner AFESIP Cambodia, to implement a suite of education and training courses for survivors.
Since 1996, AFESIP Cambodia, an organization that I co-founded, has combated sexual slavery by rescuing victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation and providing recovery and skills training to help foster economic empowerment. AFESIP’s Center for Recovery and Skills Training in Siem Reap, Cambodia, offers a beauty-training and small business management program to equip survivors with the education that can boost their position in the community, remove stigmas, and encourage gender equality.
Based on AFESIP’s model, the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon provides survivors with courses in hair styling, makeup application, and nail care, as well as training in customer service and small business management. This basic education and vocational training can enable survivors to generate enough income to support themselves and avoid the vulnerabilities that allow for exploitation and abuse in the sex trade. The Estée Lauder Companies will fund the salon’s first three years of operations, with the goal of being financially self-sustaining by 2016 and creating a replicable model.
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In September at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting, the Somaly Mam Foundation pledged our commitment to action through the salon project, in partnership with The Estée Lauder Companies. Investing in women’s employment through skills training and entrepreneurship is crucial to encouraging women to take their place as empowered agents of change in Cambodia’s rapidly growing economy.
We also recently partnered with the Nike Foundation on the GIRL DECLARATION, a call to action to put girls at the heart of the post-2015 international development agenda. Along with 61 other individuals and organizations, the Somaly Mam Foundation was one of the founding signatories to this commitment to end global poverty. This declaration was presented to the United Nations on the behalf of girls worldwide.
For many years, these kinds of partnerships were my dream, and now they are a reality. Projects developed in collaboration with dedicated corporate and nonprofit partners give me hope for the future, where we can create impactful next-generation change and a society that says no more to the oppression of women and girls.
• Somaly Mam is president and co-founder of the Somaly Mam Foundation.
• This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.
[Editor's note Dec. 9, 2013: An article questioning aspects of Ms. Mam's personal story and her organization was published in the Sydney Morning Herald here.]
Patrolling the wards of the hospital she founded in the breakaway enclave of Somaliland, Edna Adan Ismail held the hand of a teenage girl about to have a fistula repair operation, urging her to be brave.
She rubbed the back of a woman in labor and demonstrated how to breathe during contractions. She bent down to make eye contact with each patient, squeezing their shoulders, making them laugh, stroking children's heads and admiring newborn babies with a soft "Masha'allah" – "Thanks be to God."
Occasionally, she paused to correct her staff or to shoo away relatives lingering in the wards of Somaliland's first maternity hospital.
"If I see a patient, I always have to see all of them. I cannot just see one. It's not ethical," Edna said, hurrying down the corridor of the hospital, a white lab coat over her long yellow and turquoise flowered dress.
It's an approach that owes much to the influence of her doctor father, Adan Ismail, who had Edna washing forceps and making bandages out of old bed sheets as a young girl.
"He taught me compassion. He taught me generosity. He taught me the value of looking after the sick," Edna, now 76, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "One of his favorite expressions was 'if you cannot do it with your heart, your hands will never do it'."
When in 1950, Edna's father was called away to work in a relief camp for people suffering a severe drought, dubbed the "Season of Red Winds," he left little notes for his then 12-year-old daughter asking her to make sure patients received their medication or had their sutures removed.
"I had no idea what these medicines were for but I was the boss' daughter, so I would just go to whoever was in charge of the hospital and say, 'By the way, dad wanted you to remove these'," Edna said.
And she vowed, one day, to build the kind of hospital that her father would have wished to have.
Since the Edna Adan University Hospital first opened its doors in 2002, patients have come from as far as Mogadishu, more than 800 km (500 miles) south, and neighboring Ethiopia to seek treatment in the best-equipped general hospital around.
Edna and her medical team have delivered more than 14,000 babies and treated more than 140,000 patients for problems ranging from dysentery to diabetes.
On a continent where hospitals are often dingy, dark places, Edna's hospital is clean and modern despite the lack of development elsewhere. There are no tarmacked roads outside Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa, and water has to be trucked to the hospital every day.
Edna said it had been a lifelong dream to open a hospital in her native Somaliland – even more so when she saw how civil war had ruined the health-care system in the enclave, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991.
"Those midwives, and nurses, who had been trained in Somaliland or Somalia before the war had either fled the country or died," Edna recalled during a break at the hospital where she lives in a modest apartment and shares meals with her staff.
The legacy of war means that Somalia has some of the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Even today, one baby in eight can expect to die before the age of five and about one in 12 women die in childbirth.
But not in Somaliland.
Experts give Edna much of the credit for Somaliland's maternal mortality rate being a quarter that of Somalia. One factor in Somaliland's relative success has been her hospital's focus on training a generation of midwives.
In Africa, fewer than 50 percent of births are attended by a skilled health worker, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. But over the years, Edna has trained 300 midwives, largely paying from her own pocket, and sent them to help women give birth safely in the most remote parts of the country.
She also gives refresher courses to government midwives.
"Every midwife working in every corner of Somaliland has come through this hospital," she said in her impeccable Queen's English, acquired while training as a nurse and midwife in London in the 1950s. She had come on a scholarship from the British colonial office – the first Somali girl to do so.
The hospital also attracts surgeons such as Lauri Romanzi from New York University, who visits twice a year to take part in" surgical camps" in which visiting surgeons provide free treatment for everything from cleft lips and clubbed feet to hydrocephalus and fistula.
Among Somaliland's 4 million people, Edna's name is well known and much respected as a pioneer in health, education, and women's rights.
At a time when there were no schools for girls in British Somaliland, she taught herself to read and write. She also persuaded her parents to send her to school in neighboring Djibouti, defying cultural expectations placed on all Somali women to get married and start producing children as soon as possible.
She did marry, later, and in 1967, her husband, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, became prime minister of Somalia. As the glamorous First Lady, Edna was feted by US President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, dined with Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger in West Germany, and kept a pet cheetah at home in Mogadishu.
But by 1969, there was a coup that brought dictator Mohamed Siad Barre to power and Marxist revolutionaries had shot her "capitalist" pet. Civil war engulfed the country while Edna was away working for the World Health Organization, training nurses and midwives across the Middle East.
When it was safe to come home to Hargeisa in 1997, Edna decided to cash in her life savings, sell her most valuable possessions, and start building a maternity hospital on a garbage dump. She persuaded her ex-husband, then president of an 'independent' Somaliland, to donate the land to her.
When she ran out of money, she embarked on a fundraising trip, even begging local traders in town for cement.
Even being appointed Somaliland foreign minister in 2002 did not stop her working at the hospital. She simply converted the third floor into her ministry and continued running the hospital.
Having cracked various glass ceilings, her advice to other women is simply: "Don't just take it lying down and say, 'Oh, but I am a woman, I need to accept what comes to me.' Don't be fatalistic about your future, your career. Aim for it. Go for it. Fight for it. Campaign for it. Study for it. Compete for it and get it. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen."
Armed with the energy of women half her age, Edna hopes to train 1,000 midwives for the entire country, a second generation of Ednas to continue her legacy.
"What I want to leave behind for my people is not only a building, not only four walls and bricks and beds. I want to leave people who are trained, who are compassionate, and who are as passionate about what they are doing as I am," she said.
"What is most inspiring is when I see those young women who could barely look you in the face when you ask their name, who would be so timid, who get trained and go back to their village and start practicing midwifery."
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
Andrew Slack finally read the "Harry Potter" series when he gave in to pressure from his students who were obsessed with Harry, the teenage wizard who uses magic, courage, and wit to confront dark forces and save the world.
Though the plot is fantastical, Slack, like millions before him, couldn't stop talking about the books. But then he realized that if Harry Potter were a real person, he wouldn't just stand around talking about himself. Harry Potter, Slack said, would "fight injustice in our world the way he fought injustice in his."
That's when Slack had the idea to mobilize Harry Potter fans around real-world problems—and it was easy for Slack to find parallels between the fictional stories and real-life issues.
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In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling, who worked at Amnesty International prior to writing the books, wrote about inequality and even ethnic cleansing between pure-blood, half-blood, and muggle-born wizards, as well as non-magical people; werewolves forced to conceal their true identities from a culture that shames them; house elves that are enslaved and inherited down through generations; prisoners tortured in Azkaban, the wizard prison; and the use of consolidated media to control public opinion.
Most of all, says Slack, Rowling created a world that made "fun of normalcy as an aspiration" and believed that "the weapon we have is love."
Just as Hermione Granger started the activist Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (SPEW) to try to end the slavery of house elves and Harry started Dumbledore's Army to fight Lord Voldemort, Slack started the Harry Potter Alliance—a movement of Harry Potter fans turning their deep love of the stories into real-world action in order to "fight injustice in our world."
Today, the HPA has 190 chapters in 35 U.S. states and eight countries and participation in the group spans all ages.
Slack and the HPA believe in the power of story to change the world and they believe that activism can be fun and lighthearted, even when the societal issues they're confronting are serious. Slack calls this method of making the world a better place through popular culture, "cultural acupuncture."
"Imagine people working to end global warming, racism, and genocide as energetically as they flock to movies," wrote Slack for the Huffington Post. "Imagine them walking out of "Avatar" with an organization that says, 'Here's how we can band together to protect Pandora by fighting the "Sky People" in the Coal Industry.'"
Here are eight issues the HPA has already taken on:
1. Labor rights
The Harry Potter Alliance took off when Slack and his friend Seth Soulstein, from their traveling comedy group, the Late Night Players, joined with the group Walmart Watch and created "Harry Potter and the Dark Lord Waldemart" YouTube videos.
The featured main character is a cloaked figure with a Walmart smiley face for a head, the evil Waldemart. The videos describe Walmart's unjust labor practices and how their low prices force local shops out of business.
Just as Lord Voldemort treats his servants poorly (for example, SPOILER ALERT!, he chops off Wormtail's hand and murders Professor Snape), Walmart, the world's largest private employer, treats its workers unfairly.
2. Fascism and genocide
The group rose in popularity when Slack and Soulstein combined efforts with Harry and the Potters, a rock band based on the books. Their first move was to mobilize already existing Harry Potter fan groups around ending genocide in Darfur.
This theme shows up in the books when, controlled by Voldemort and his Deatheaters, the Ministry of Magic establishes a policy of ethnic cleansing, believing people with impure or non-wizard blood have no worth.
The group worked with Sifa Nsengimana, a Rwandan human rights activist. With her help, in addition to creating a podcast, raising awareness, and sending letters to end genocide, the group established a library in Rwanda for children who were orphaned because of the genocide.
3. Disaster relief
With the help of the Wizard Rock community, HPA raised more than $123,000 in two weeks for Partners In Health following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. With this money, PIH was able to fly five planes full of emergency medical supplies to Haiti. Four of the planes had Harry Potter names—Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore—while the fifth was named DFTBA (Don't Forget to Be Awesome) in honor of Nerdfighters, a group that joined with the HPA on the campaign.
The Harry Potter series largely takes place at Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. In the books, education plays a central role and the lead heroine is Hermione Granger, a young witch who demonstrates the role of books and education in fighting injustice and empowering people.
The Alliance has donated more than 120,000 books to kids in Rwanda, the Mississippi Delta, and New York City through its "Accio Books" campaign. It also helped build libraries at the New Beginnings Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and in community centers across the Mississippi Delta.
5. Modern-day slavery and child labor
Dobby the house elf, one of the series' most beloved characters, is a slave who has been passed down through generations in the Malfoy family. When Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy, the family patriarch, into freeing Dobby, Harry earns the elf's undying loyalty. Dobby, as a free elf, achieves self-realization.
And Harry Potter fans have made the connection between house elf slavery and modern-day slavery.
HPA is currently pressuring Warner Brothers, which sells Harry Potter chocolate frogs (a common sweet in the books), to prove there is no child slavery in their cocoa supply chain. The Alliance even sells their own version of chocolate frogs made from fair-trade chocolate.
6. Voter registration
The Harry Potter books demonstrate the importance of civic participation by highlighting the government's role and its potential to overreach. More often than not, Harry Potter and his friends are at odds with the Ministry of Magic.
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The HPA has used this connection in their "Wizard Rock the Vote" campaign. At 70 Wizard Rock shows across the nation, HPA volunteers walked around with clipboards registering more than 1,100 Harry Potter fans to vote.
7. Immigration and marriage equality
In the Harry Potter series, many "people have to live in the closet for simply being who they are," explains Slack. "Lupin has to live in the closet for his identity as a werewolf, Hagrid has to live in the closet for his identity as a half-giant, and Harry Potter is forced to live in the closet for his identity as a wizard. We all live in closets for multiple reasons. No one should have to, including for their immigration status or for their sexual or gender orientation." That's why the HPA raised more than $94,800 for equality initiatives.
In the 2012 election, club members helped in phone banks to add 900 calls to the Maryland DREAM Act to grant an in-state tuition discount to undocumented college students and to add support of marriage equality in Maine. In 2011 they made 6,200 phone calls and processed 214 digital postcards in support of marriage equality in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The HPA also currently has a "Superman Is an Immigrant" campaign to support immigrant rights.
8. Structural poverty
The HPA is branching out into other books too. The "Hunger is Not a Game" campaign joined with Oxfam and "The Hunger Games" fandom to help end hunger. Their newest campaign is "The Odds Are In Our Favor" to raise awareness about inequality.
• Katrina Rabeler wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Katrina is a freelance reporter and writer.
• This story originally appeared at YES! Magazine.
When Anne Asplund received a $20,000 check from the Cliffs/Eagle Mine Marquette County Community Fund for her after-school music program, it was like a dream come true.
"One day that check just came in the mail, and I was shaking," she told The Mining Journal of Marquette, Mich. "I couldn't believe it. I haven't even spent any money yet, because I've never had money to spend, so it's just been an overwhelming joyful thing for us."
Ms. Asplund, a teacher of music, gym, and technology at Birchview Elementary and Ishpeming (Mich.) Middle School, has been involved with the after-school strings program for 10 years, which was started by Ishpeming Middle and High School music teacher Sheila Grazulis.
Asplund said she took over the class three or four years ago, and teaches the violin to about 35 elementary school kids, and a whole spectrum of orchestral instruments to about 20 middle school kids. Everything she uses to teach, including all of the instruments, were either donated by the community or purchased with funds raised by community members.
She learned about the community grants last spring and was told to make a list of "everything we could ever dream of" to use in the music program, she says. She made a list totaling approximately $11,000 that included violins of every size — she "went crazy," she says.
"In August they came back to me and said, 'You didn't spend enough,'" Asplund says. "I thought I'd gone over the top."
So she went back and put in for transportation costs to go play at various places around the community. She put in money for supplies, music, storage units, and T-shirts. When she was done, the wish list totaled $20,000. She never thought it was going to happen, she says.
The money will be instrumental in ensuring that the after-school music program stays free, Asplund says. "It's always been my dream to have enough instruments to keep this program free, because it really is, to the best of my knowledge, the only after-school program that is free to the students, except the rental of the instruments," she says.
Music programs such as hers are incredibly important because they offer emotional and intellectual development that kids might not get in their other classes, Asplund says.
"The correlation between reading music, understanding rhythm, understanding note reading, all ties in to reading skills," she says.
For the middle school kids, "they can express feelings that are not always allowed – sorrow, joy, excitement," she says. "[T]he arts allow you that comfort zone to really explore different facets of your personality and gifts that aren't always seen in the academic world."
"[What] I like most is getting to play and just playing with my friends," says Taylor Longtine, 9, a fourth-grader who participates in the program. "I like reading the notes."
Ericka Olson, an eighth-grader at the Ishpeming Middle School, participates in the after-school program and volunteers to help Asplund with the elementary kids. She's been involved with the program for five years, she says, and loves that she's able to learn music and keep involved with the arts.
She also loves "the inspiration within the pieces, and the sound when you harmonize with other instruments.
"I just love how it sounds, and the inspiration, and bringing a smile to our parents' and our families' faces," she says.
• Information from The Mining Journal.
For most college students, trips with friends to tropical destinations are far from business expeditions.
But for Griffin Thall and Paul Goodman, that is precisely what their five-week college graduation trip to Costa Rica became.
While visiting a small community, the duo came across two men – Jorge and Joaquin – who were selling bracelets along a street. The colorful, handmade bracelets seemed to capture the “Pura Vida” – or in Spanish, pure life – way of life that the pair experienced on their trip.
It was in that moment that the idea behind the pair’s company, Pura Vida Bracelets, was hatched.
Mr. Thall and Mr. Goodman bought a batch of 400 bracelets to bring back to the United States. It wasn’t long before they sold out at a local boutique shop, and customers were asking for more.
“I think people like our brand honestly because it is so simple and unique,” says Thall, who serves as co-founder and CEO of Pura Vida Bracelets. “We sell handmade bracelets that people have seen scattered everywhere in third-world countries. But we have found a way to truly inspire our customers to trust our brand and join our movement. Pura Vida is a lifestyle in Costa Rica, and we simply just wanted to share that with the rest of the world.”
Today, Thall and Goodman have an operation with about a dozen staff in the US and more than 50 in Costa Rica. To date, they have sold more than 2 million bracelets and, as a result, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than 175 charities around the world.
“We sell bracelets. Simple as that,” Thall says. “But the way we have scaled it is something we didn't think was possible. My Pura Vida journey has been an experience that I wish everyone can have some day.”
The team has made bracelets representing a variety of causes, ranging from Hurricane Sandy relief for the US East Coast to a Sandy Hook Elementary School memorial bracelet, the sale of which has helped Thall and his colleagues to donate more than $30,000 to the Newtown (Conn.) Memorial Fund.
But beyond the contributions to charitable organizations, Thall says that one of the greatest parts of Pura Vida has been the benefits that have been reaped by Jorge and Joaquin. While the pair had previously been living in a single room with three beds and multiple family members, they now have a home of their own and a staff of more than 30 friends who work with them to create the bracelets.
“The most meaningful part to me thus far has been traveling back to where it all began and visiting our team,” Thall says. “Every time we go, the team is larger, the office is bigger, and the spools of string are in the hundreds of thousands.”
Thall described the sight as “one of the coolest things I have ever seen,” adding that the other things that always capture his attention are “the huge smiles on the whole team, the entire time.”
Part of their joy probably stems from the fact that more than 20,000 of their hand-crafted bracelets sell on a weekly basis from some 2,500 surf shops, boutiques, college book stores, and a handful of chain stores across the globe.
In the coming months and years, the team hopes to come out with new styles and colors, and is considering expanding the product line to include a full apparel brand, with T-shirts, hoodies, pants, bags, and other items, Thall says.
Of course, the experience has had its ups and downs.
“The best moment has been celebrating the success of our business with our friends,” he says, adding that they have faced a set of unique challenges as well.
“The worst moment was when we had a package stuck in customs for two months and had to figure out how fulfill the orders and service our accounts the correct way,” he says. “This was a terrible time, but somehow we all made it through it.”
Thall never expected a vacation with a college pal to turn into a thriving business with a strong philanthropic philosophy, he says, or the lifestyle they adopted after visiting Costa Rica.
“My Pura Vida journey has been something that I could never have dreamed of,” he says.
• For more information, visit http://puravidabracelets.com.
Each year, almost 575,000 Africans die from the smoke and toxic fumes of traditional cook stoves and cooking fires, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
“EcoZoom stoves reduce fuel use by 50 percent to 60 percent and toxic emissions by 70 percent,” says Amanda West, EcoZoom’s co-founder and chief communications officer, speaking to Global Envision from her Nairobi office. “The stoves cut cooking time in half, which allows women to spend more time gardening, tending to children, and socializing.”
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Recognizing that Somalia, Rwanda, and Kenya have different circumstances and needs, EcoZoom partners with governments, local businesses, and aid organizations to run the projects on the ground. The company manufactures and sells the stoves to its partners for distribution. The partners also translate instructions for the stoves and collect data about stove usage through surveys, technology, and focus groups, which helps EcoZoom design better stoves, West says.
Although EcoZoom plans to begin assembling stoves in Kenya in 2014, all of its stoves are currently made in China. Chinese manufacturers have the ability to mass produce on a scale that is nearly impossible in a local community in Africa. A local manufacturer in Africa might produce 2,000 stoves per month, while the Chinese manufacturers can churn out more than 70,000 stoves per month.
“In order to keep up with population growth in developing countries, it’s important to have stoves mass produced,” said West.
By targeting relief, development, and commercial markets, EcoZoom has become a profitable business in the short time since it was founded in 2011 in Portland, Ore.
EcoZoom’s market in Somalia, galvanized by Relief International, targets the millions of people who fled their homes and are living in refugee camps in Mogadishu, Galkayo, and Afgooye. Most of the refugees cook over hazardous open fires and three stone fires, in which a pot is supported by three stones surrounding a fire. With people crowded together, cooking fires produce even more of the smoke and toxic emissions that cause respiratory diseases.
Cooking fires also can get out of control, and have even burned down entire camps. And the area surrounding the camps quickly becomes deforested, forcing women to travel farther to find firewood, and leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence.
Relief camps can be dangerous and volatile, and the stoves must be distributed quickly, thoroughly, and effectively, West said.
“When working in a camp, it is important to have a stove for everyone,” she said. “Stoves cannot be distributed to half of the camp, or there will be internal fighting.”
Relief markets do not typically mature into development or commercial markets, although it is possible, West adds.
DelAgua Health and Development runs a pilot stove program that reaches about 10,000 Rwandans in 15 villages. The project is monitored and evaluated regularly: Each stove comes equipped with a barcode linked to a household identification number. Complete records of the stoves are uploaded by community health workers in real time over smartphones to a database that lets DelAgua Health track the program’s performance.
Stove giveaways help build a development market, because they make people aware of the benefits of the stoves and prove they work, West says.
“The price elasticity of demand can be low in development markets because people don’t know the benefits of the stove, even though they may be able to afford it,” she says. “They are not aware of the respiratory dangers of smoke. In a development setting, you need to market and sometimes subsidize the stoves in order to build into a commercial market."
Stoves currently are given away to the poorest 30 percent of the population to help create demand for the remaining 60 percent who need improved stoves. Eventually, development markets advance to commercial markets.
Kenyans purchase EcoZoom’s stoves outright and buy their own fuel.
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EcoZoom recently opened its second office in Nairobi, which is a hub for international development. While its partners have conducted the marketing, distribution, evaluation, and customer service for most of its other markets, the commercial market they've established in Kenya is run exclusively by EcoZoom.
Since there already was a widely used local cookstove – -the Kenyan Ceramic Jiko – EcoZoom’s directors knew consumers would be open to their charcoal-only cookstove, the Zoom Jet. Kenya is the leading market for charcoal-only cookstoves, according to West.
From an investment of just $40,000 and a $100,000 term loan from Mercy Corps NW, EcoZoom has grown in just two years to sell more than 90,000 stoves worldwide.
“All our markets present different business opportunities and challenges,” West says. “We think it is important to pursue them simultaneously because we want to provide high-value products that impact all the world’s consumers.”
Over the past decade, aid organizations have moved from handouts and giveaways to making markets work for, and by, the poor.
Traditional charity provides immediate, short-term relief, but its benefits are limited and can lead to a level of dependency that threatens all efforts for sustainable growth. Instead, aid groups have shifted their focus to building local markets for the poor to become buyers, sellers, and agents for long-term economic development.
Building inclusive markets is a key approach that allows the poor to join with powerful partners in fighting poverty. If you’re wondering what this aid approach looks like, here are four programs that promote market-based solutions to poverty.
Like its mothership, the United Nations, the Growing Inclusive Markets initiative is a research-producing machine. The initiative states that massive economic growth in developing countries will only be achieved if the poor are seen as consumers, producers, business owners, and employees, and not just the beneficiaries of corporate social responsibility dollars.
If you want case studies, Growing Inclusive Markets has case studies – the UN initiative counts more than 120 inclusive business models, "rigorously documented and reviewed," that follow its advice on how to include the poor in core business activities.
What it doesn’t do: Anything that's purely philanthropic. A development program may be altruistic but if it's not commercially sustainable, Growing Inclusive Markets isn't interested.
What it looks like on the ground: In Burkina Faso, the French organic cosmetics company L’Occitane invested in local women’s cooperatives, helping 15,000 employees produce and export quality shea butter and generate $1.2 million in profits. Growing Inclusive Markets wants more of these success stories, and it is documenting as many examples as possible to make it easier for the next company to follow suit and, ultimately, alleviate poverty.
Opportunities for the Majority – Inter-American Development Bank
Mirroring its parent business, Opportunities for the Majority focuses on projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. The initiative helps poor people become key players in expanding local markets and earning profit by sponsoring building projects in sectors ranging from agriculture to infrastructure, and improving the poor’s access to these newly created jobs.
The initiative promotes sustainable business models that connect companies, local governments, and communities to the poor. The ultimate task is to identify local demand for high-quality products and show all parties that partnering with the poor can be both profitable and sustainable.
The bank offers a variety of financial services to encourage engagement with poor communities, creating incentives for companies to expand operations and build long-lasting partnerships with the poor. And those at the bottom of the economic pyramid reap the benefits by receiving affordable goods and services, greater job opportunities, and access to the formal economy.
What it looks like on the ground: In 2011, Opportunities for the Majority loaned $2 million to support FINAE, a Mexican financial institution that provides student loans to middle- and low-income students.
The FINAE loans cover all tuition costs, and include training and tutorial support to the students. In turn, students must be in good academic standing to receive a loan. They pay only the interest on the loan while in school, and repay the full amount progressively after they leave school and find jobs.
Inclusive Business Models Group – International Finance Corporation
The International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, promotes inclusive business as a private-sector approach to provide goods and services to the poor. By thinking of poor people not only as customers but also as potential suppliers, distributors, and retailers, the group develops successful partnerships with the poor while building up inclusive business models across the globe.
In 2012, the companies that worked with the IFC reached more than 173 million farmers, students, patients, and utility customers directly, provided more than 13 million microfinance loans and created 284,000 jobs.
The Inclusive Business Models Group offers its business clients a collection of resources and networks to help scale up their models and, in turn, develop more mutually beneficial partnerships with the poor.
What it looks like on the ground: ECOM Agroindustrial Corp. Ltd, a business client of the IFC, works directly with small-scale coffee farmers throughout Central America. By providing opportunities for farmers to finance their production and access business training and technical support, ECOM has given farmers the tools to get both more quantity and quality out of their crops, boosting the value of their produce and the cash in their wallets.
Between 2006 and 2012, ECOM purchased more than 81,000 metric tons of certified coffee to sell to branded product manufacturers like Starbucks and Nestlé Group, providing an additional $14.7 million in income for farmers.
Private Sector Development – The Donor Committee for Enterprise Development
The Donor Committee for Enterprise Development champions private-sector development to help the poor find jobs, improve incomes, and escape dependency on foreign assistance.
The committee uses a number of approaches that encourage risk-taking in public-private partnerships and takes into account the potential failure of markets or governments. By nudging investment behavior in a new direction, the committee seeks to expose uncharted investment opportunities that can promise profit for firms while improving markets and opportunities for the poor.
Expanding the private sector means that governments of developing countries can boost tax revenues needed to invest in health care, education, and public infrastructure.
What it looks like on the ground: Vietnamese entrepreneurs used to face hundreds of regulations, making it nearly impossible to start new businesses, generate additional income, or create job opportunities. The committee, in collaboration with Australia and the UN Development Program, provided support to the Vietnamese Parliament to draft and implement a new Enterprise Law, which was enacted in 2000.
In just three years, 55,000 new businesses had registered, creating more than 1 million jobs. The law now creates an estimated 750,000 jobs annually by reducing some of the largest barriers involved in starting and operating a business in Vietnam.
These four programs prove that poor people can be important partners in the fight to eradicate poverty. When influential donors and aid organizations nudge businesses, governments, and communities to promote inclusive markets, they create a powerful solution to poverty.
The best solution, after all, will be one that lasts long after the dust has settled, and all of the aid workers have packed up and gone home.
During the long, hard winter of 2011, the bleakest moment for Indian Valley, Calif., came with the chilling news of a sixth youth suicide. Ethan Elzea, then a reclusive 12-year-old, could name all of the dead boys: Rodney, Nate, Joaquin, Nick, Robby, Miko. But the shot that killed Nate Cunningham came closest to his heart.
Ethan, who confesses to having suicidal thoughts himself as early as the fourth grade, had followed Nate around their northern Sierra Nevada community like a little brother. They swam together and canoed in Lake Almanor. Ethan looked up to Nate, a counselor and fellow Native American. The relationship offered him respite from their home community, where racial tension and bullying are widespread.
“He was someone I could talk to,” says Ethan, now 15, slender and serious. The string of suicides—all of which occurred during a two-year period—sent him into a devastating depression.
He brooded about violence, including the death of his sister’s cat, killed with a baseball bat.
“I was angry at everything around me,” he says, his voice low and guarded. “I basically hit rock bottom.” For a few seconds Ethan’s eyes go dark and furious behind his maroon-rimmed glasses.
The six teen suicides shook Ethan’s rural community like an earthquake. Home to ranchers, loggers, and retirees, it is a place where almost everyone knows everyone else, often across several generations. The dead boys were sons of Indian Valley. Some were gentle, others pranksters. Some played sports, others dabbled in music.
All but one were Maidu Indians, and all came from two-parent households where drugs, alcohol, and domestic violence had been longstanding problems. All had been exposed to bullying, and they knew each other well.
The community waited in stunned silence for some response from local social service providers. Greenville High School offered one day of grief counseling after the death of the oldest boy, a non-Native who had been out of school for several years, and the Maidu education center held a day-long gathering with healers and dancers. That was it. No discussion for parents, no suicide-prevention training for teachers, nothing to kick-start the painful process of healing.
A close-knit community of 3,000 residents, Indian Valley had rallied together after forest fires, floods, and the threatened closure of the area’s only high school. The suicides, however, seemed to drive people into isolation.
No one talked openly about them, says Susie Wilson, a lifelong resident whose husband, brother, and several close friends had killed themselves in years past. “It was as if we were all frozen in fear.”
Ethan was lucky. Though reticent himself, he comes from a talkative family. They hold weekly meetings—no electronics, no telephones—and discuss everything from daily chores to thoughts of death.
“If you talk about things, they don’t seem so bad,” says his sister Cassy, 18. “And maybe you can stop someone from committing suicide,” adds Haylee, 14.
This was the hope that inspired their mother, Marsha Ebersole, to team up with Wilson. Compelled by a yearning to spark community discussion about what was happening, the women took what now seems like an obvious first step: They held a public meeting. The gathering, in January 2012, drew about 85 people, a high turnout for any local event in January. The county director of mental health attended along with parents, Maidu elders, educators, and the Plumas County sheriff.
“This was an outpouring of heartbreak,” says Wilson.
Within a month the parents, officials, and teenagers who attended had organized the Indian Valley Youth Summit, a grass-roots group that met monthly to coordinate responses to the apparent epidemic of suicidal depression among local young people.
Indian Valley, tucked into the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 250 miles northeast of San Francisco, is rich with forests, streams, and fertile soil. But the lush natural resources belie a disturbing trend: As in many other isolated rural communities, parents and social service providers here are struggling to cope with a surge in youth suicides.
Among people 15 to 24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death nationwide. It is the fourth leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds. And although there were fewer suicides overall during the 2000s, for teenagers the trend spiked. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that since 2010, suicide among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased by about 6 percent. For 10- to 14-year-olds, the numbers shot up by 100 percent.
The highest rates are among Native American teens, who kill themselves three times more frequently than kids from other demographics. Natives aged 15 to 24 have the worst numbers in the nation: 3.5 times the average. This has led tribes in Alaska and elsewhere—believing that youths feel adrift—to develop programs aimed at reconnecting teenagers to their culture.
Many face the challenge of becoming adults without any link to their tribal past: the stories, survival skills, and supportive families that might provide a stronger sense of identity. Scientists believe strengthening these ties can reduce substance abuse, depression, and other risk factors, says Stephanie Woodard, who writes about Native youth suicide.
In a series of stories in Indian Country Today, Woodard describes suicide-prevention camps that take Alaskan youths into the wilderness, where they come face-to-face with the rudiments of basic survival—and their demons. Other tribes use skits, traditional games, and storytelling, along with outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing. These programs are not a panacea, says Lisa Wexler, a University of Massachusetts professor working with Native Alaskan communities.
But they often start conversations that can be life-changing for depressed kids who see no other way out.
Farrell Cunningham, a Maidu traditionalist who grew up in Indian Valley, is dedicated to revitalizing the native language and culture, believing that this will increase confidence and self-worth among Maidu. (Three of the young men who recently took their own lives were disconnected from their tribal heritage.)
But an awareness of the world beyond their own small town may be just as important.
Teenagers need to realize that Indian Valley isn’t “the beginning or the end of anything,” Cunningham says. “It’s just the place where you live, and you can go off and do and be anything that you want.”
There are obvious reasons for the hopelessness Cunningham senses in Indian Valley youths. Unemployment hovers at 17 percent. When they envision the future, many young people here—both Native and non-Native—list “suicide” alongside traditional life choices, says Wilson. “There’s college, travel, jobs, marriage, suicide... It’s been normalized—just part of the conversation.” Add to that the racial stigma and cultural ambiguity many feel, and it’s a recipe for disaster, say scientists with the National Institutes of Health.
The Indian Valley Youth Summit, the first and only organization in Plumas County devoted entirely to suicide awareness and prevention, does not concentrate exclusively on Native Americans; Its focus is all youth suicide. But studies suggest that the more it can respond to the unique needs of the Indian Valley community, the better its chances of success.
As the Youth Summit continued to meet in the spring of its first year, participation began to wane. Promises of help from the county mental health department and Native American organizations never materialized. Several students were teased for their involvement, and some agency heads criticized the group’s founders, Ebersole and Wilson, for not being health professionals.
They were dismissed as “bored white housewives,” says Ebersole, a Wailaki Indian and mother of six. She and Wilson, a longtime family-services advocate, puzzled over the backlash. Was it institutional defensiveness for a failure to respond to the very households now grieving over lost sons? Or perhaps a preference for focusing on more affluent, non-Native communities?
In any event, the institutional failures that existed before the summit remained, says Harry Rogers, an Indian Valley rancher who attended the first meeting. “The agencies were blowing us off. I don’t like to point fingers, but that was the feeling.”
Many grass-roots groups face resistance, and many fold under the pressure. But the Youth Summit leaders persisted.
“Somebody has to do this,” says Wilson. “We will not allow our youth to be dismissed.”
She and Ebersole organized the county’s first suicide-prevention training for teens. To encourage camaraderie, they launched community movie nights, created a Wii video game tournament, and hosted a day-long session on nonviolent communication.
Among the needs teenagers voiced repeatedly: better communication with adults. In an early survey, 89 of the 91 young people who responded said they wanted a mentor. Summit leaders set about matching them with positive role models.
Rogers, the Indian Valley rancher, suggested creating no-suicide contracts. He designed a wallet-sized card listing the name and phone number of a “survival buddy.” Teenagers who signed the contracts pledged not to harm themselves and promised to call their buddies if suicidal thoughts arose.
Rogers, a shy man, says the effort it took to stand up in public and introduce the contract will be worth every painful second if it makes a youth think twice.
“I just don’t want to see any more kids die,” he says.
Despite the considerable hurdles, these small, homegrown measures appear to be working. Other grass-roots groups have sprung up, and last summer there were twice as many youth activities in Indian Valley as the year before—including teen movie nights and Audubon-led birding trips. This summer saw the addition of a kids community garden and hikes in nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park.
A major breakthrough came during the 2012–13 academic year. The Plumas Unified School District and its previous superintendent, both defendants in a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination, had been particularly dismissive of the Youth Summit.
But when Micheline Miglis took the helm in September 2012, she immediately welcomed the summit as a community-based organization. Miglis allowed Greenville High to hold an assembly about bullying and suicide, something Ebersole and Wilson had long requested. She helped organize similar assemblies at other county high schools, and she directed teachers to develop suicide-prevention curricula.
Kimball Pier, appointed in February to head the county mental health department, has provided funds to expand the mentor program and open a community center for teens.
“The doors have flown open in the last few months,” says Wilson. “We have grown from a mentality that wouldn’t let us talk about suicide to a program about suicide that’s countywide.”
Encouraged, several high school students have tackled suicide in academic assignments. Terra Adcock, a senior at neighboring Chester High, focused on bullying by designing a form that allows students to report harassment while remaining anonymous, and last April she hosted an all-school assembly about the signs of depression, identifying specific agencies to call when in need.
“The pressures of life at our age are difficult, but they’re not so difficult that thousands of teenagers a year should be killing themselves,” Adcock says.
For science class, Ryllie Cantrell, a Greenville sophomore, studied the effect of weather on suicide rates. Her sister Aynslee, who knew several of the boys who killed themselves, is completing a school-wide presentation on the psychological impact of bullying.
“We can’t sweep it under the rug anymore,” says Ryllie, “and people around here would, if we didn’t keep talking about it.”
Despite these hopeful signs, the Indian Valley Youth Summit remains a work in progress. Youth participation is erratic. The mentor program, stalled by fingerprinting requirements and other bureaucratic snags, has established only eight partnerships.
Yet the Summit can assuredly claim the most important measure of success: Since its formation there has not been a single teen suicide in Indian Valley.
“The little youth group that critics so belittled is saving lives,” says Wilson. And whether or not it lasts, the Summit has, undeniably, started a conversation.
“Suicide,” says Ebersole, “is now a community discussion—out loud and in public.”
Ethan Elzea, the reticent teenager, still doesn’t like thinking about Nate’s suicide or any of the others.
“I miss them,” he says softly. But the youth summit has given him words and permission to voice his own dark thoughts—“I guess you could call it a lifeline.”
Recently Ethan extended that lifeline to an eighth-grade girl who announced during the Rotary Leadership Camp they were both attending that she was thinking about killing herself. Too shy to look a stranger in the eye a year ago, Ethan spoke up, addressing a group of the 85 teens from California and Nevada. “I said everybody needs to know there is always somebody there for them. I told them about the Indian Valley Youth Summit and how we talk about suicide.”
The girl did not kill herself. In fact, without naming Ethan, she credited the camp for helping her. But Ethan knows he played an important role. After he tells this story, he looks up with a bashful smile.
“I’m glad I did that,” he says. “I’m still working on getting up to the person I want to be. But we all are.”
• Jane Braxton Little wrote this article for The Human Cost of Stuff, the fall 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Jane is based in California’s northern Sierra Nevada. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Nature Conservancy, and Audubon.