A salute to graduates | Fighting malaria through education, fundraising

Like many teens, Olivia Kessler was unaware of malaria’s devastating global death toll. But after hearing of a partnership between the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center and Nothing But Nets, an organization that purchases mosquito nets and distributes them to countries in Africa, Kessler decided to act.

Each year, the disease, which is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito, strikes an estimated 219 million people in 109 countries around the world. Approximately 600,000 people die from malaria every year; most are children under the age of 5.

Olivia Kessler

“I’m very passionate about global health issues, but I didn’t know much about malaria,” said Kessler, 18, who graduated this week from Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. “I knew it was treatable and could be eradicated.”

Kessler organized a monthlong social-action campaign last fall for NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth. Using such tools as Twitter, Facebook and the NFTY website, the campaign educated several thousand NFTY teens across the country about malaria and the Jewish ethics of helping to fight it. In addition, the teens sent more than 300 action alerts to Congress and raised nearly $3,000 for Nothing but Nets.

“I never realized how lifesaving a net is,” Kessler said. “It changed my whole perspective.”

For her efforts with the campaign, the United Nations recognized Kessler on International Day of the Girl in October 2013.

“Honestly, I didn’t love the recognition, I just loved doing it,” she said. The upside, though, was “more people read about my campaign and it pushed it further.”

Recently elected as the new social action vice president for NFTY, Kessler will attend Dickinson College in the fall. She plans to study political science and Middle East studies.

Kessler recently shared with JTA her most meaningful Jewish experience, what her future plans might be and which global health leader she hopes to meet.

JTA: Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you have had?

Kessler: Spending the summer of 2012 in Israel with NFTY, hiking through the Negev and celebrating Shabbat with my friends.

JTA: Who or what have been the biggest influences in your life?

Kessler: My family. They’ve inspired me to always reach out and do what I can for others and have an open mind.

JTA: What would you like to be doing professionally in five or 10 years?

Kessler: I want to apply for the Peace Corps and travel to Tanzania to work on this issue [of malaria]. I would like to work in the nonprofit world, possibly with the Religious Action Center. I’m fascinated by it.

JTA: If you could have lunch or coffee with anyone and tell him or her about the work you’ve been doing for Nothing but Nets, who would it be?

Kessler: Bill Gates. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with him about global health initiatives and to think outside the box with him.

Tell JTA about teens who deserve attention by sending an email to teens@jta.org.