Erin Zaikis was only 19 years old when she watched ‘Slumdog Millionaire, but it changed her life.
Desiring to experience the India she’d seen in the movie, Zaikis booked a ticket to Mumbai, to spend a summer volunteering at an orphanage for abandoned and abused children. “It was a life-changing, stressful, crazy-time. But also a real wake-up call,” she says in an interview with Global Citizen.
Zaikis travelled to Thailand, meeting women and children who had never used soap and without basic hygiene education, leaving them susceptible to deadly but preventable diseases. It was shocking for her to learn that something that she had taken for granted was of immeasurable value to so many. It strengthened her resolve to do something about it.
She started her NGO titled Sundara (which means ‘beautiful’ in Sanskrit), to employ underprivileged women to collect used soap from hotels and recycle them. The outer layer of the soaps are scraped and disinfected before being shredded to pieces which then gets cold pressed to be made into new soap bars. These are distributed to children in need and slum residents.
The women are also trained as hygiene ambassadors, who educate their communities about cleanliness. “It’s been insanely challenging, but so rewarding in giving dignified opportunities to women. Some of these women are in their 30s and it’s the first job they’ve ever held in their lives”, Zaikis says in the GC interview.
This program has now expanded from Mumbai to Dahanu (Ashte) and Pune in India, and is also run in Myanmar. To date, Sundara has made over 132,000 bars of soap and taught more than 3,005 lessons on hygiene and cleanliness to children to over 61 schools in underprivileged communities.
Enabling someone to wash their hands with soap seems like a small action, but thanks to Zaikis, it has provided dignity and given hundreds a chance at a healthier life.
Written by Uma Srinivasan