Have you ever been so proud of someone and so in awe that it literally takes your breath away? That’s how I feel about Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara, a non-profit organization that works to ensure holistic public health solutions by combining hygiene initiatives with community education, environmental preservation and female empowerment whenever possible for communities in need. How did I become so blessed to know someone so inspiring?
The year was 2007. I had just sold everything I owned, packed what little I had left (and my dog) into my Honda CRV and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to work and save money before my big year-long sojourn in Jerusalem. My beloved friend, Joel, had gotten me a part-time job at the University of Michigan’s Hillel as a Jewish Student Life Program Director. I was 27 and a little lost but felt like things were about to change . . . dramatically.
I started in October, after school had already begun and relationships already solidified. I was a little nervous the students would be all, “Who’s this chick and why is she late to the party?” Of course, they weren’t. We’re talking about Michigan students here! The best of the best (go Blue)! One of the first students I met was one Miss Erin Zaikis. Erin was (and remains) incredibly hilarious, incredibly grounded and incredibly real; some of my favorite qualities in a woman. We connected instantly—bonding over such deep subjects as hip hop music, our love of diverse cultures and no one believing that we’re actually Jewish. After about 7 months and a dramatic burn injury, I ended up leaving Ann Arbor earlier than expected and moving in with my mom in Asheville, NC. I went about my life and so did Erin. Thanks to Facebook, I was able to keep up a bit on what this woman was getting up to. I knew she was traveling and exploring and I was happy that she was able to do all those things. What I didn’t realize (but should have) was that she was hatching a plan.
While working in rural northern Thailand, Erin visited a local school. When she arrived, she used the bathroom, but when looking for the soap, there was none to be found. She asked the students if they had any soap at the school but just saw blank stares. So she asked if they washed their hands after going to the bathroom, or before eating. They all shook their heads no.
Stunned by this, Erin went to the nearest town and bought out their supply of soap to bring back to the school. She proceeded to conduct an impromptu hand-washing workshop. However, many of these children had never washed their hands before: they were fumbling the bars of soap in their hands and smacking it against their faces, unsure of what to do with it that was her light bulb moment!
Upon Erin’s return to the US, she found that the leading causes of death in children worldwide are illnessesthat could be prevented with a bar of soap. This problem she saw in Thailand actually existed all around the developing countries. In fact, according to a recent Unilever study, there are 70 million people in India alone that don’t know what soap is!
Approximately 3.5 million die of diarrhea and respiratory diseases each year according to the Centers of Disease Control. Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of infection and illness, and is more effective, yet cheaper, than any vaccine on the market. With this in mind, Sundara was born.
Erin took a few minutes out of her world-saving schedule to answer a few questions for me. I hope you are as inspired by her work as I am. And even if you can’t go to India/Ghana/Haiti to physically join Erin in her efforts, you can help by donating to Sundara. To read more about Erin, check out this profile of her in The Huffington Post. Also, after this interview is a recipe for curry pizza with roasted cauliflower and eggplant.
Erin: Last year, while working in a small village in Thailand I went to visit a school and met children who didn’t know what soap was. I went to the bathroom – these students had sinks and running water – but no soap. So I drove to the neighboring town, bought out their supply of soap and brought it back with me. I watched as the children opened the packages of soap and clawed at the bars, some smacking it against their heads, having absolutely no idea what to do with it. Then I realized, so many organizations focus on clean water but who is working on providing soap and hygiene education to these communities? Upon my return to the US I quit my job and decided I had to do something about this. I founded a soap company which later rebranded as a nonprofit that designs and funds sustainable hygiene programs for underserved communities in Haiti, Ghana and India.
1 medium eggplant, sliced to 1 inch thickness
1 medium cauliflower, sliced length-wise so that you have nice, wide, flat florets
1 cup curry sauce (I used prepared curry sauce, it’s just easier)
1/2 Haloumi cheese, cubed
1 – 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 tbsp T
umeric1/2 tbsp Kosher salt
1/2 tbsp Garlic powder