Sydney Kamen knows it’s not fun to talk about hygiene, but it is necessary. When she was just 15, Sydney was running disaster response food drives and later came to serve as a volunteer emergency medical technician in several developing countries, including Haiti, Rwanda, Myanmar, and Nicaragua. She witnessed first-hand the role of poor sanitation and how a lack of soap spreads infectious diseases globally.
So, Sydney came home and created So Others Are Protected (SOAP). The concept is simple, yet genius. SOAP collects unused soaps from regional luxury hotels, then coordinates with underserved communities to recycle, melt, and re-craft new soaps to deliver to regions suffering from poor sanitation. SOAP also trains and empowers young women to become peer educators and community health leaders. So far, SOAP has teamed up with 14 community partners and 13 hotel partners, and has helped distribute more than 50,000 bars of recycled soap. Sydney has been awarded several leadership awards and honors, and is a well-deserving recipient of the 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
She is also a student at Dartmouth, a U.S. Army ROTC cadet, and is currently studying the prospects of making soap from leftover cooking fats and ashes (for a project in Rwanda). But of course, she took the time to chat with us about how this all came to be.
Where did you grow up?
I’m a DC girl born and raised.
What’s your happiest memory of growing up there?
I realize now that Washington, DC is very much a bubble, but I grew up exposed to so much, and I really grew up in a very diverse community. There were so many resources in the area that I could take advantage of. I grew up near Georgetown University, where I had access to professors and language classes. In high school, I got to go to lectures at the Wilson Center (a think tank focused on international affairs). I love Washington.
What are you studying now?
I am now a junior at Dartmouth College. I’m a geography major studying international development and global health. I am currently taking this incredible course about incarceration in the U.S. and the prison-industrial complex, and another course on care ethics. I am also taking an amazing class with Dr. Cornel West about W.E.B. DuBois (an early 20th-century African-American scholar and activist).
And if you ever have free time, what do you like to do?
Being up here in New Hampshire, one of my favorite things to do after classes is go for a hike or check out one of the awesome county fairs. The culture up here is different and fascinates me.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I’ve always wanted to go to Eastern Europe, because that’s where my extended family is from and I’d love to see the home of my familial roots. I’ve never been exposed to Eastern European culture or even Eastern European history – except for the standard information that’s required in high school.
Can you tell me about that first moment when you realized a bar of hotel soap could change someone else’s life?
It was a combination of ideas. My freshman year in high school, in biology we did this very simple comparison between hand washing with soap and hand sanitizer and we were supposed to determine which one was more effective. And I remember being so shocked because in our culture of hand sanitizer everywhere, hand washing works even better. And that was my first exposure to hand washing as health intervention. And I had recently become very interested in access to health and health care. I mean, growing up in Georgetown, what would I know about not having access to clean water or soap?
In high school, I also had the opportunity to shadow a nurse along the Thailand-Burma border and that was my first exposure to the state of sanitation and hygiene overseas. The nurse was explaining to me what we were seeing as a result of poor sanitation and we discussed What is the problem? and What is the solution? What are other NGOs overlooking?
And if I learned anything, it’s that it’s so important to ask the questions and listen instead of hearing yourself speak.
How do your parents feel about SOAP and about your honor?
My parents are really proud of me. The traveling definitely makes them a little anxious, having their first-born daughter traveling around the world. I mean, I still can’t believe that they trusted a 15-year-old and let me be part of these opportunities. My mother said to me just the other day, this award is a great validation, but it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that you’re using it to help others.
What were some of the reactions you got from your first soap distribution?
The way that SOAP works is that we coordinate with our hotel partners and hospitality staff. We ask that instead of throwing away the unused soap, they collect it. So, they collect it and when they collect a certain amount the transportation is arranged. Usually it’s from more than one partner hotel. Then it goes through melting and cutting and reshaping. In some of these communities there are very diverse cultures represented. So, each community can have a say in that repurposing. Some of the soap is really beautiful and colorful. Others are really just purely functional. We use the repurposing stage to promote women’s ability to build up economic independence.
What’s your favorite memory of handing out soap?
SOAP is not a form of aid or handout; rather, it is a self-empowerment initiative. I personally believe in having the smallest physical presence as possible. I try to stay far away when the soap is distributed, because I’m very wary of any kind of neo-colonial undertone. I don’t want to be the “young white savior” coming in and giving people stuff. I want to work with communities to create local solutions to local problems.
What’s the hardest part about running SOAP?
Well, I’m trying to do this with really no experience. I built SOAP from this cool idea that I had. I’m trying to run this in the process of learning about its development and the diversity of cultures and do so in a sensitive way. But also on top of being a full-time student and an ROTC cadet. It’s definitely a juggling act. And I have yet to master it. Ultimately, my goal is to continue growing this project and its impact.
Anything you’d like to say about this honor from the Diller Foundation?
I’m so honored to be recognized by the organization and am so grateful for all of their support. This award is so much more than financial support, which I will use to grow our programs in a sustainable and ethical way. But also, and more importantly, this is not about me. I’m not the one who’s on the ground making the soap. I’m not the community leader who’s organizing women to partake in the recycling of soap. I play a tiny role. This program is still very much open to criticism and change. I recognize that I am not an expert in this field – I’m just someone who cares and is passionate and willing to learn.
I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I’m so grateful for this recognition. And I’m so excited for all the things I can do with the Diller Family Foundation over time.
This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.