One girl's global helping hand

Lauren Prince was just a teenager when an ocean tsunami washed away many Asian villages in 2004. But she was determined to help.

Lauren Prince was an ordinary American teenager in 2004. She was busy with school, and she liked to hang out with friends at the mall. Then, halfway around the world, a tsunami struck India and neighboring countries on Dec. 26. The monster wave was so powerful that it wiped many villages and towns off the world map.

Lauren and her family wanted to help. But how? Soon, the name of a city caught their attention on TV: Chennai (Madras), India. They remembered that a friend of the family, Becky Douglas, ran a charity and a children's home there.

So they called to find out whether Ms. Douglas and the children were OK.

All was well for them, but countless nearby fishing villages had been destroyed. With no fishing equipment or supplies, survivors had no way to provide for their families. Eleven thousand dollars would be enough to rebuild one village, Ms. Douglas told them.

That news was a wake-up call for Lauren. Of course, $11,000 is a lot of money, but it's not that much considering that it could put an entire village back together. So with the help of her family, she set to work raising that money.

Lauren asked the headmaster at her high school in Potomac, Md., for permission to talk to the student body about helping tsunami victims.

Almost everyone at the assembly responded enthusiastically. Lauren thought she would collect donations for just 10 days – but that's not what happened.

Local newspapers ran stories about Lauren and her friend Sam Havaf, whom Lauren had asked to help with the fund drive. Some local businesses were inspired to donate to the cause.

Students from other area schools got involved, too. Lauren even had a friend in North Carolina who had her own fundraiser – and then gave the money to increase Lauren's total.

By the time the project was finished, $110,000 had been raised!

Lauren was amazed at what her idea had stirred in people. The entire community had gotten involved.

But she was most impressed by how many students helped. Everybody who took part "felt like they had contributed to something [important]," Lauren says. And because of the extra funds, "we were able to help out in so many more directions than we thought."

Lauren worked with Ms. Douglas in India to figure out where the money was most needed. They decided to use some of it to help rebuild several Indian villages.

Funds also went toward a microloan initiative of Rising Star Outreach, the charity Ms. Douglas runs.

Microloans are small amounts of money that are lent to needy people so they can start small businesses. The businesses generate income that the borrowers use to support their families and to pay back the loan.

When one loan is paid off, that money goes toward another loan to another person in need. So the benefits of microloans (which are often less than $100) are ongoing. The loans that folks in Lauren's town funded are still helping people today.

Microcredit – as microloans are also known – helps people in many parts of the developing world. These tiny loans have lifted whole communities out of poverty.

Lauren and several others at her school got to travel to India during their spring break in 2005. Nine students and five adults, including Lauren's mom, visited some of the villages that their funds had helped rebuild.

The group rode in a few of the boats that their money had bought and met some of the children at Rising Star whose parents had been aided by microloans.

The 10-day trip – especially the visit to Rising Star – was life-altering, Lauren says. Everyone was nervous about seeing how much some people had suffered. But by the time they had returned to the US, they all viewed poverty and disability in a totally different way.

"It helped us to realize that we can't be too quick to judge [someone]," she says.

Lauren feels that her whole hometown has changed because of helping the tsunami survivors. "People are more willing to step forward now when some crisis happens," she says. "Right after [hurricane] Katrina had happened, our school opened [its] arms ... to some students who had been displaced."

Lauren, too, is different. Before the tsunami, she says, "I was very much a teenage girl – very interested in shopping and going to the mall and talking about gossip. And after I got back [from India], I was not interested at all in any of those things."

Now she's more focused on doing what she can to help others.

While in India, she learned about an organization called NetAid, which aims to educate and inspire young people to fight global poverty. Once she returned home, she got involved and that summer trained to become part of NetAid's Global Citizen Corps.

That's a national network of high school student leaders whose goal is get their peers on board in efforts to end poverty around the world.

Throughout her senior year, Lauren was active in the group. She even traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, with another corps member to see the living conditions at some of the orphanages there.

Lauren learned that the needs of different people in different places must be met in varying ways.

During spring break of her freshman year at Boston University, Lauren and her mom journeyed to Kenya and Uganda in East Africa. Their mission: to photograph the ways microloans had helped poor residents of the two countries.

Lauren's now a sophomore in college and is as active as ever in her community. One of her roles this year is to organize community-service events for the university's Panhellenic Council, an organization of the school's sororities and fraternities.

She doesn't know what kind of career she wants after college, but Lauren's sure it will involve public service. The tsunami fund drive and trip to India made her realize that helping people makes her happy, and she wants that to be a big part of her career. And she encourages other kids and adults to consider how they can serve society, too.

"Everybody has something to offer to somebody else, and everybody should help in whatever way that they can," she says. "Because whatever strengths you have might be a weakness for somebody else and vice versa. So if you can use your strength to help somebody else, you should."

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