When Lydia Lapporte boarded a plane for Vietnam in late December of last year, she didn’t know what to expect.
The seventh-grader, who was studying for her bat mitzvah, had looked into several different organizations before deciding to work with the nonprofit Heifer International to fulfill her mitzvah project. Her grandparents had introduced her to the organization almost five years earlier, buying a goat for an impoverished family through Heifer on her behalf.
Now Lydia and her mother, Juleen, were traveling to Vietnam to get a first-hand look at the efforts the charity had made there. Heifer International works to end world hunger in more than 50 countries through gifts of livestock and training.
“I knew I wanted to do something with animals,” says the curly-haired 13-year-old almost a year later, seated on the couch in jeans and slippers at her family’s home in Lafayette as her dog, Coco, pads around the living room. (The family also has a cat, parakeet, fish and chickens.) “And I wanted to do something where I could actually go somewhere, and really see the benefit for people.”
What she saw would permanently change the way she saw the world, as well as her role in it. Witnessing widespread poverty up close for the first time, Lydia was shocked by the conditions in which many people lived — and the strength of their spirits in spite of it all.
“The most surprising thing was seeing, even after Heifer’s work, how they really don’t have anything,” Lydia says. “They have houses without running water or lighting … but they were still so much friendlier than people here, welcoming you into their houses and everything.”
The trip was eye-opening for Juleen as well, especially as a regular volunteer at her kids’ schools.
“Just seeing the families that were recipients of Heifer gifts, and what they did with the money was remarkable,” Juleen says. “All of them said that they put it toward their children’s education. These were people living without plumbing, and they were still able to recognize that putting money toward their children’s education was what was going to help lift them out of poverty.”
Upon returning to the U.S. in January after a two-week tour of remote Vietnamese villages, Lydia was more committed than ever to keep raising money to help the people she met. After setting out to raise $10,000 and reach 2,000 people with Heifer’s message, she held an open house in February for family and friends to hear about her trip and the organization’s mission.
From there she presented to assemblies of up to 300 kids at local elementary and middle schools, as well as at her Hebrew school classes, and distributed DVDs of her presentation to groups that couldn’t hold assemblies.
Taking a note from Heifer’s fundraising guide, she introduced programs such as A Quarter a Day Keeps Hunger Away, challenging students to contribute one quarter a day of their own money to a special jar kept in the classroom.
“It can really add up,” Lydia explains. “If a lot of people give a little it can make a big difference.”
For Hebrew schools, Alpaca Tzedakah (“It sort of rhymes,” Lydia says) asks kids to donate money to purchase alpacas — whose fur is similar to wool and can be easily woven into blankets, sweaters and other textiles — for the residents of remote villages.
She also emphasizes the “passing on the gift” element of the organization’s message: Heifer recipients give their livestock’s first female offspring to another family, meaning an initial contribution keeps working to support more families over time.
The result? Somewhat to Lydia’s surprise, her love of fundraising has caught on: She’s raised $19,000 to date, with no signs of slowing down.
“I remember in elementary school when we had presentations about fundraising, I wasn’t excited to bring in my own money,” she says. “I just didn’t care that much … [so] it’s so great to see kids actually care about it. They actually want to bring it in.”
Lydia rejects the oft-repeated notion that youth of her generation are apathetic. To the contrary, she says, her peers have been very enthusiastic about getting involved with her efforts to alleviate poverty — once they’re aware of how bad it is.
“I think one of the problems is people aren’t really educated enough about what’s happening outside of, you know, Facebook and stuff,” she says. “All the people I talk to [about poverty in remote areas] are really surprised, and then they care. It just needs to be more of a big thing that people know about.”
She credits the visual element of her presentations with getting younger kids engaged. “Even if they hear that people however many miles away are in poverty, it doesn’t really affect them,” Lydia says. “But when you see what’s actually happening, you get a lot more attached.”
Juleen says it’s also clear students respond well after hearing about a problem such as world hunger from a young person — a peer, not a parent or a teacher. “When they have a kid interested in it, it’s a little more tangible to them,” she says.
Since Juleen isn’t Jewish, she says the fundraising and the Vietnam trip helped her connect to Lydia’s bat mitzvah process. “I was useless with the Hebrew,” she says with a laugh. “So it was great to connect with her over this project, with this goal.”
And while Lydia’s family is proud of her efforts, no one was entirely surprised.
One could argue that philanthropy runs in the family: her parents, Dan and Juleen, have made volunteering a way of life, and Lydia’s grandparents, Sy and Anne Lapporte, are longtime supporters of organizations throughout the Bay Area. Sy and Anne currently match most of their granddaughter’s contributions to Heifer through a fund with the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay.
Sy Lapporte says he marvels at Lydia’s ambition and follow-through.
“The experience has done a lot for Lydia in terms of her own self-confidence and her ability to talk to people, so there was a lot of growth and maturity,” he says. “And philanthropy is an important part of our lives, so we’ve tried to instill that in our family. But she’s really raised the bar for fundraising for a worthy cause, and it’s impressive how kids have responded.”
Lydia became a bat mitzvah in September, wearing a tallit she bought in Vietnam. And while she’s taken a short break from her presentations recently, she’s now working on the next stage of her fundraising for Heifer.
Part of that means recruiting friends to help, as she’s planning to transition from being an individual donor to having a “team page” with the organization, and getting more people directly connected with Heifer instead of going through her.
She hopes other kids planning their mitzvah projects might consider joining the team. “When you’re getting all these presents and stuff, you want to give back,” she says.
Aside from her regular academic duties as an eighth-grader at Stanley Middle School, Lydia also is on a swim team and has a weekend volunteer job teaching kindergartners at her religious school.
But looking ahead, she can’t imagine growing tired of her efforts anytime soon — the Heifer International project has opened her eyes to the point that she no longer thinks of community as just what’s outside her front door.
“I would like to travel more,” she says. “And I definitely want to go back [to Vietnam], maybe once I’ve done more fundraising. I’d like to visit all the people I saw before, and be able to compare how they were with how they are now.”
For more information about Heifer International, visit www.heifer.org.
To learn more about Lydia’s fundraising, visit her blog at www.lydia4heifer.typepad.com.