Chapter 29: Margaret Lewis

Chapter 29: Margaret Lewis

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Extraordinary Teens

Margaret Lewis

Humanitarian and Aspiring Documentary Photographer

Quick Facts:

Competed in the California State Speech and Debate finals as a high school sophomore

Musician, singer, and songwriter

Certified scuba diver

Ran a half marathon for Ronald McDonald House for pediatric cancer

Granted early admission to NYU Tisch School of the Arts

At age 16, organized fundraisers to build a school in Kenya

As young people, we need to believe. More than we need to conform, or learn, or do, or become, we need to believe. We need to believe that ideals can still be realized despite the deadening cynicism that seems to engulf our world. We need to believe in the grace that comes with caring and the maturity in patience. We need to believe that our own lives matter, that our fifteen minutes of cosmic fame, our instant of consciousness in the eternity of time, will have amounted when it’s over to more than just another “whatever.”

Everything starts with belief.

Three years ago, at the age of sixteen, I found myself on a bus approaching a village in Kenya. I had signed up to spend my summer vacation there building a school for children I’d never met and couldn’t possibly have known even if I had. Fortunately, somehow I believed that as a sophomore in high school I could make a difference in the lives of others half a world away who had nothing. At least… I thought they had nothing.

As our bus pulled to a stop in the village, it was immediately surrounded by hundreds of children, singing, dancing, and straining to reach the windows to get a look at us, to touch us, to be acknowledged by us. It was as if we were rock stars, cast into a throbbing sea of fans. I could never have imagined their joy at our arrival. These were the people I had come to help, those whom I had supposed had nothing.

Certainly, they didn’t have iPods or cell phones. No video games and no computers. Most of them didn’t have shoes, none of them had running water, and even electricity was a rarity. No cars or fast food, no malls and no 500-channel digital satellite HDTV. In other words, they had none of the things we know are essential to making life tolerable. But the one thing they absolutely had was belief.

In a squalor that most Americans could scarcely imagine, the young people of Ebukoolo had an abiding belief that things could get better. They believed that their chance would come. If only they had the opportunity, they would burst their hearts to show the world they were worthy of that greatest of trusts: life. They believed in life… and so did I.

I stayed with them for five weeks, building their new school, playing the same games that children everywhere play, singing their songs (and mine), teaching them letters and numbers, learning their tribe’s stories, and telling them ours. This was truly five weeks of incredible companionship.

When we were finished building the schoolhouse, I realized the project had only appeared to be a school. I could see and feel and heft the bricks but they were suddenly not the most significant fruits of our labor. The real results came in the revelation that wealth isn’t in “stuff” and that dignity doesn’t come from “things.” True meaning comes from human connection, and greatness of spirit emerges from our capacity to believe in each other—and then, of course, acting on that belief by doing something to improve the situation.

After spending a total of thirty-six days in Kenya, I returned to my comfortable suburban American life knowing that I could make a real difference in the world. I then committed to making positive changes in the world any way I could. I didn’t know what change and I certainly didn’t know how it would happen, but I knew I could never be the same. I remembered the words of my ninth grade history teacher, Mr. Freeman, quoting an African proverb: The greatest waterfall begins with a single drop of water. I didn’t know how big the waterfall would become or where it would lead, but somehow I knew that I had to be that one drop of water, moving in a positive direction, believing that I would be only the first of many, many other drops.

I asked Mr. Freeman for help and, together with Ms. Bolton, my biology teacher, we started a non-profit. We called it One Dollar For Life, or ODFL for short. It’s about single drops becoming waterfalls—individual believers making themselves into a torrential positive force of humanity. Through ODFL we ask every student in America to give just one dollar which our organization uses to construct schools in the developing world like the one I had helped build in Africa the year before.

In my first year back, we got five high schools in California to believe in ODFL and our ultimate vision. They did fundraisers, asking each student to give just one dollar. It’s the equivalent of a student giving up one cookie, one Coke, one super-sized upgrade in a year. We ended up raising $9,000! We used these funds to build a school in Naro Moru, Kenya, for forty-five students who had previously been going to class in a horse barn. You can see a video of the project on our website:

Until we believe in something, nothing can happen. Once we believe, anything can happen.

We tell all of the students who give that it’s not about the dollar, it’s about the choice—the commitment to help somebody else based on the belief that the world will be better as a result. One dollar is never as valuable as ALL of the dollars combined. In other words, it’s not the money, it’s the decision. It’s not my effort, it’s all of ours. If we can instill this one belief into the hearts of millions of teenagers—and get them to act on it—we will literally change the world. That’s what gets me excited!

Since that first year, we’ve raised money to purchase desks for a school in Malawi, Africa that had none. We collected and shipped 452 used bicycles to Africa. We’ve bought cows for orphanages so that children could have protein, and piglets for families so that young girls in Nepal are not sold into sexual slavery. We raised $3,000 for the China Red Cross in order to help the victims of the last devastating earthquake. And this past summer we built a three-room school in Nepal for eighty-four children who had, before this time, been holding school classes under a tree in a nearby park.

And perhaps the best news is that these are just some of the projects we’ve completed. Where does it go from here? Well, we have a big vision. There are more than twenty million high school students in America. If we can get each of them to donate just one dollar, we can build over 1,000 schools a year in developing countries. And when we’re done with schools, we’ll build water wells, irrigation systems, health clinics, and sanitary waste disposal systems. All for a dollar!

And while we’re changing the world “out there,” we will just as surely be changing the world “in here”—inside our own hearts and therefore, inside our own country. As I learned with that very first school building project, the real value is not the “thing;” it’s the person. The real project is to build a generation of compassionate human beings—people who are connected to their world, and cooperative in achieving great things, and competent in bringing it all about. At ODFL, we call these “The 4 C’s.”

We need these 4 C’s—connection, compassion, cooperation, and competence—to address the really big problems we face as a planet. Think ozone depletion. Species extinction. Ecosystem destruction. Pandemics. Global warming. Those challenges cannot be solved from the localized, selfish, competitive mentality that brought us here. They can only be solved by humanity working together and sharing the belief that it is possible to create a better tomorrow.

Real, long-lasting change always starts from within. That’s one of the reasons it’s been so hard to do: we try to fix things on the outside. My generation has always been told, “You can change the world,” but the truth is we often don’t believe it because we’ve seen how many times others have failed and sometimes we just don’t see how we could make change happen. But by looking a little harder, we can see a much different reality. There is hope… and lots of it. I believe that ODFL is proof that we can all do something much bigger than ourselves. I never thought just two years ago I would be part of a national non-profit organization improving the lives of millions of people, but because I was passionate and believed there was a way it could be done, I helped create a solution. And I’m no special person. If I can do this, there’s no telling what you can do as well.

By giving millions of teenagers the chance to help others and then allowing them to see the fruits of their gifts, we hope to show them how even the little things can and do make a difference. Abraham Lincoln was a giant of a man, 6’4” tall when the average American man was 5’7”. Somebody asked him one time, “Who’s the biggest man you ever saw?” And Lincoln replied, “The biggest man I ever saw was one who stooped to help a child.”

People become bigger people when they help others. They grow even more when they understand the power they have to shape their world. We don’t just want to create a longing for a better future, we want to create ownership in that improved “new” world. But only bigger people can make a better world. It cannot happen any other way. We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to believe great things can happen.

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