Profile of an Israel Outdoors Staffer – Keeping it Clean

Here at Israel Outdoors we are always interested in finding out more about our staff and participants and learning about the interesting things that they do. Erin Zaikis, a two time staffer with Israel Outdoors, and tells us about a non-profit organization that she created called Sundara.  Thanks for sharing Erin!

Israel Outdoors SundaraWhere are you from?
I’m from Marblehead, MA, a small town North of Boston.

Where do you live currently?
I currently live in New York.

What do you do now for a living?
I am the founder and CEO of Sundara.

What is Sundara?
Sundara is a US-based nonprofit that designs and runs sustainable hygiene initiatives for under-served populations around the world. Our projects run in the mountains of Haiti, the villages of Ghana and the slums of India – ranging from water filter installation to community cholera prevention to recycling soap that’s usually thrown away by local hotels. We focus on community led education, female empowerment and environmental sustainability in our quest to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to the most basic preventative health measures.

What inspired you to create Sundara?
Last year I was working in a small village in Thailand for a nonprofit that combats child trafficking. I went to visit a local school – and tried to wash my hands at the sink but could not find the soap. I asked a group of middle school aged students nearby if they had any soap and they said “What’s soap?” It blew my mind that 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 they 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. I had taken soap for granted every single day of my life until that moment. Then I realized, so many organizations focus on clean water but who is working on providing soap and hygiene education to these communities? I wanted to be a person that took a stand for this. Upon my return to the US I quit my job and founded Sundara with the goal of ensuring basic hygiene materials and skills for every child – no matter where they live.

What is your favorite part of working with Sundara?
My favorite part is the ability to go to bed at night and feel like I’ve helped someone, somewhere – even if there’s a high likelihood that I’ll never get to meet that person. Before I did this I spent a year working in corporate real estate in Manhattan and I felt like that killed my soul. I was helping very rich people get richer and I always thought “what is my purpose here?” I felt like a cog in a wheel: nothing I did mattered and I couldn’t see an end in sight. Everyone around me hated their jobs so I thought it was natural to feel the same. It’s been incredibly scary and liberating to leave the corporate world and set off on my own. The highs are higher and the lows are lower – but I’m in control of my own destiny and that feels great.

What is your favorite Sundara story?
I just got a call from a mother in India where we have a soap recycling program. We train women to recycle soap from 4 and 5 star hotels in Mumbai and distribute the sanitized product to children in urban slums as well as rural villages, teaching about the importance of hand washing. It seems so basic to you and me but Unilever estimates that there are 70 million people in India who don’t know what soap is and can’t afford it, so the problem is real. Anyways, this girl’s mother called to tell me that her daughter had rashes on her face and hands and stopped going to school regularly. When she got a delivery of our soap and went through a Sundara hygiene training she began to wash her hands every day and the rashes went away – and now she has been back at school every single day and is no longer ashamed. I know this is just one small story but it puts a face to the problem and gives me a reason to continue doing this, especially on days where I feel unmotivated and overwhelmed (which, trust me, there are plenty of).

Israel Outdoors ErinWhy did you decide to staff an Israel Outdoors trip?
I have such a love for Israel – which I single handedly owe to the fact that I was able to go on Birthright and several other subsidized trips to Israel during college. I built a relationship with Israel that cemented my Jewish identity and later pushed me to become very involved in Hillel at the University of Michigan and study abroad in Tel Aviv for a semester. Going to Israel those first few times was such a spiritual, eye opening experience and it made me proud to be a Jew for the first time in my life.

Having been so lucky to have that privilege, I realized that I needed to give back too: I wanted to help other people have a similar experience. It’s been an honor to be on the other side – and help guide young Jews along their first trip to Israel, seeing what moves them, what frustrates them, which things they fall in love with. I’ve seen my participants go on to join the IDF, study at a Yeshiva and become very active in their Jewish communities at home – all because of this one trip. It’s fascinating to me what sort of transformations occur in these 10 short days and I want to continue to be a part of it.

What was your favorite part of your Israel Outdoors Trip?
My favorite story from an Israel Outdoors trip was from the trip I staffed a year ago (this time last year). It was a participant’s birthday that day and we were in the Dead Sea (literally in the middle of nowhere) staying at a Kibbutz. My co-staffer and I wanted to surprise the birthday boy because it was his first birthday away from home, so we took a 30 minute taxi to the one Kibbutz shop and bought these strange packaged Israeli cakes (they weren’t so tasty) and these amazing cookies (much better) for him. We bought balloons and confetti and streamers too – and then realized when we got back that we didn’t have any candles. It was Shabbat and everything was about to be shut down and we were in panic mode. Then, the security guard at the front of the kibbutz heard our story – told us to wait a few minutes – and came back with a handful of sparklers and fire crackers. I think the birthday boy was more excited about that part than anything else. It also reminds me of the friendliness of everyone you meet in Israel – from the taxi drivers to the security guards to a person sitting next to you on the plane ride, everyone is a part of your larger family and willing to help you out. That’s what I miss about Israel the most.

Anything else about you we should know?
I’m so grateful for being chosen to staff two trips with Israel Outdoors and I consistently recommend the program to all of my friends. If you have any questions about Sundara or Israel Outdoors and why you should go, feel free to get in touch with me @erinzaikis on Twitter or send me an email at [email protected]. Thank you!