Hero: Amyie Kao Makes Water from Coffee

To honor Amyie, we’re donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a clean water well in Rwanda. Shop here.

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Amyie Kao was getting restless. It was late one night in 2012 and her husband Daniel was under the sink, installing a filtration system in their new coffee roasting facility. He kept fiddling and adjusting and testing, inching towards optimal water to brew their coffee, for hours.

They had recently founded Mariposa Coffee Roastery together and moved the business into their first dedicated roasting space in Norman, Oklahoma, near the University of Oklahoma. Daniel started roasting coffee in college at OU, a hobby that quickly escalated to an obsession. He built his own roasters, housing one in a rented storage space a few miles away because it wasn’t allowed on campus.

As Amyie watched him tinker she thought about the importance of water in coffee—in brewing it and in growing it. In her mind, a restless and combinatorial mind, Amyie overlaid two maps. The first showed the global “coffee belt,” the region straddling the equator where coffee is grown around the world. The second was a map she had seen of the global water crisis, which showed where billions of people, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, didn’t have access to clean drinking water. The two maps highlighted many of the same areas.

Amyie and Daniel knew that quality coffee requires attention and care from farmers, who grow and carefully handpick and process coffee cherries to produce great beans. “When we roast our coffee, our goal is to honor the hard work that’s been poured into every single coffee bean,” said Amyie. This sense of responsibility to the farmers behind their coffee is a core value of their business. Hence Daniel’s hours under the sink.

When Amyie realized that many coffee farmers live in areas where clean drinking water is scarce, it was an affront to this sense of connection and responsibility to the farmers. To learn more she contacted Water4, an Oklahoma City nonprofit that drills wells in water-scarce communities around the world.

Water4 sent Amyie some photos from Rwanda, taken in a district called Nyaruguru (Nyah-roo-guh-roo). Amyie knew the region. It’s beans won the Cup of Excellence in 2011, a competition known as the Oscars of the coffee world. She had seen a one pound bag of coffee from Nyaruguru selling for $30.

The photos showed the only water source for three villages in the district. It was a pool of brown water, an unprotected spring that surely held bacteria and parasites. “People had to hike 45 minutes down a mountain to a water source that could be contaminated,” said Amyie, “and then haul heavy jerry cans full of water back up to their village.”

The people growing $30-per-pound coffee, Amyie realized, didn’t have clean water to drink.

A Dodgy Part of Town

Making this sort of connection—between her own pursuits and larger justice issues—isn’t unusual for Amyie. After working for a U.S. Senator during college she led letter-writing campaigns for social justice, having learned that handwritten letters carry much more weight than form letters. When she was president of the Pre-Med Club at OU she gave a presentation about genocide because, to her, the connection between medicine and global justice was inescapable.

Amyie was born in Oklahoma City to Chinese parents who had owned grocery stores in Vietnam. The Vietnamese had seized nearly everything they owned during the war, and they had come to America as refugees.

Amyie Kao, Ember Hero

She grew up in what she calls a “dodgy” part of town. Years later she watched a documentary about human trafficking and saw shots of her childhood street. She says she grew up playing in her backyard a lot because the front wasn’t safe. But still she remembers it brightly. “I remember spending countless hours playing under our giant pecan tree, exploring my grandmother’s garden, and romping in the dirt,” she said.

Her parents had forgone education to work in their family business in Vietnam, so when they got to the U.S. they had few professional opportunities. They took low-wage jobs and went to night school to try to improve their situation. But “they didn’t quite make it out of the low income bracket,” Amyie said.

She remembers being six years old when her grandmother had a stroke. The family rushed to the emergency room. Amyie said the “doctors were incredible impatient with the language and cultural barriers.” The hospital staff openly discussed the family’s poverty and that they wouldn’t be able to pay the bill, thinking that no one in the family could understand them. But Amyie understood. They told the family to seek treatment elsewhere.

“Most physicians try to be kind,” she said. “And then there are some that aren’t. I felt powerless to do anything about it.”

As the family’s best English speaker Amyie often played intermediary between her family and America. She said that most people at most times have been kind to her family. But some people at some times—often important times—treated them as inferior and unimportant. And young Amyie stood in the middle, relaying the messages.

Water Made from Coffee

More people die each year because they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation than from all the violence in the world, including wars. And the women and children who usually walk long distances to fetch water miss out on time working or in school and are in danger of harassment and sexual assault.

“We had this realization that, while we’re tinkering with our water system, the very people producing our coffee might not be alive to see the next harvest.” To Amyie, the connection between coffee and water became inescapable. Honing their craft of roasting coffee wouldn’t be enough to honor the farmers growing it. She and Daniel would have to do something about water.

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They discussed it and decided to set aside a portion of their profits to build wells in coffee growing communities. “We’re a small startup,” she said, “so we had to set aside a little money each month.” After nearly two years they were able to commission Water4 to build a well in Nyaruguru.

The people in those villages now spend less time collecting and hauling water, and when they do get it, it’s clean and safe to drink. This means lower risk of disease, less vulnerability to violence, and more time spent at school or in the garden. In a place where clean water was nearly impossible to come by, a well is a small miracle.

Amyie and Daniel are setting aside money for a second well now. They want to put another well in the same area, so that if and when one needs maintenance, a common challenge, the people there still have clean water to drink.

And they’re also saving up for a trip to Rwanda to visit this place where the coffee map and the water map intersect. They want to see where their treasured coffee beans come from. They want to shake the hands of the farmers who nurture them. And they want to know, directly, the importance of water in coffee.

To honor Amyie, we’re donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a well in Rwanda. Shop here.

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Lindsay Branham Helps Child Soldiers Find Home Again

 We’re giving 50% of our online sales for one month to Lindsay’s Mobile Cinema project. Shop here.Lindsay Branham, Ember Hero

Shooting was stalled, and Lindsay Branham and her team of New York filmmakers were stuck in a village in the struggling and beautiful Republic of South Sudan. Their production schedule demanded action, but local government officers were threatening to shut them down completely. They had come to film a story about an abducted child soldier returning home, not for Sundance or box office glory, but as a tool to help people in Central Africa recover from the very real abductions and violence they had endured at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty,” wrote Irish Poet John O’Donohue, in a quote Lindsay shared with me by email. “Beauty,” he continued, “triumphs over the suffering inherent in life.” In the LRA’s ongoing brutality in Central Africa, Lindsay found staggering depths of pain. She brought the film crew to capture the triumph of reconciliation and healing, of beauty, and to help it along.

The LRA is notorious for abducting children and forcing them to commit violent acts against their own families and communities. Lindsay and her partners, including the Congolese organization SAIPED, create beautiful short films that capture these traumas, and that illustrate a path to recovery. Together with techniques like role playing and community discussion, these films help people, families, and communities navigate the emotional minefield of losing their children and, sometimes, seeing theme escape and return home. She calls it the Mobile Cinema project, and she created it as part of her work with Discover the Journey, a non-profit network of media makers and storytellers that works to change the lives of children in conflict.

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“After the very last meeting, when we were told we would not be able to continue the project, I walked out to our car and finally just cried,” said Lindsay. They had already cast villagers for the film, and she felt that she was letting them down, along with their whole community.

When she got back to the village she called a community meeting with the cast to break the news. One by one, cast members expressed their sadness. Samson, the young teenage boy who’d been cast in the lead role, started to cry. His brother had been abducted by the LRA and was still missing, he said. He saw his role in the film as a way to honor his brother by helping others who’d been through his trauma.

“To make meaning from [pain] was something sacred,” said Lindsay, “and I hadn’t seen that or predicted how deeply people would want that until we were there sitting in the grass saying we were leaving.”

They had eleven days left for a shoot that needed three weeks. The next morning they flew from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and started auditions that afternoon. “Thankfully,” said Lindsay, “the actors we ended up working with in Congo showed the same level of zeal and excitement for the vision. And it only communicated to me just how much people want to be agents in their own healing process.” They shot into early mornings and, with the help of a heroic Congolese producer and translator, finished a film about a child soldier’s tumultuous return to the home he’d been ripped away from, a film that will promote healing throughout the region.

In a conversation that spanned a number of emails and a rainy-day interview in Uganda, I asked Lindsay why it’s worth it to her to engage with such painful stories, to really care about these people and so to take on an element of their suffering.

I keep myself open to pain, and beauty in pain, because I loose my own humanity if I don’t,” said Lindsay. “If it’s the natural rhythm of life to die and live and die and live and die and live—our cells are constantly dying and being regenerated, plants are dying and being regenerated, that seems to be the cycle, the way our world functions—do we not also have to have our own souls and hearts die in order to fully live?

Shop our brand new products by December 11 and we’ll donate 50% of your purchase to support Lindsay’s work. And see Lindsay’s first Mobile Cinema film here.

Our First Podcast: A Conversation With Ember Hero Rachel Goble

Rachel Goble cofounded The SOLD Project to help prevent the sex trafficking of kids in northern Thailand. We chose her as our latest Ember Hero. All this month, we’re donating 50% of our online sales to further her work with The SOLD Project.

I had the pleasure to chat with Rachel over Google Voice. She had just returned from Thailand and I was in Kampala, Uganda. Isn’t technology amazing? We talked about her background, how and why she started The SOLD Project, and how hope informs her work and life. I hope you enjoy.

Rachel Goble, Ember Hero

Ember Hero: Rachel Goble Keeps Children Out of Brothels

Shop here and 50% of your purchase will be donated to support Rachel’s trafficking prevention work at SOLD.Rachel Goble, Ember HeroEarlier this year, in a small, green village in the hills of northern Thailand, a woman approached a 14-year-old girl and made her a simple offer. She could earn the equivalent of $1,000 dollars, the woman told her, for losing her virginity to a paying customer. This woman wasn’t going to forcibly kidnap her. The girl had the choice to say yes or no.

Silicon Valley native Rachel Goble, through her organization The SOLD Project, is working to educate Thai girls on the real terms of offers like these—that they won’t be paid $1,000, that they’ll likely be confined to a brothel for years and forced to sleep with not just one, but thousands of paying customers, that accepting one of these offers will lead to new kinds of pain and poverty, the kinds that tear not just at the stomach, but at the soul.

Rachel’s childhood was at the opposite end of nearly every spectrum from the poor, undereducated Thai girls most at risk of being trafficked. Her parents run Goble Properties, a San Jose commercial real estate company founded by her grandfather. The business afforded Rachel an idyllic childhood. “I lived down the street from some of my best friends,” she told me, “and so evenings and weekends were spent riding bikes between each others’ houses and getting into mischief.”

Rachel Goble, Ember HeroRachel’s parents also had a unique passion that took her into a much larger world. “Some of my earliest memories are tromping through jungles looking for land while a Mayan man would swing a machete only inches from my head to clear a path,” Rachel recalled. Her parents began exploring the connections between the environmental damage and poverty in the Central American country of Belize. Rachel took her first of many trips to Belize when she was only nine.

By Rachel’s teenage years the Gobles had built Jaguar Creek, a sustainable center in the jungle to host teams from universities and churches around the world, who would come to learn how environmental degradation contributes to extreme poverty. Belize, Rachel said, was her second home. Her passport was completely filled with stamps by age fifteen. And she told me that her time there gave her a great and lasting gift: a sort of naivety in regards to cultural and socioeconomic boundaries, a comfort amidst difference.

It was this foundational comfort that allowed her to find one of the world’s most uncomfortable places, a place whose desperation became her calling. While traveling in India as part of her postgraduate work at Fuller Theological Seminary, Rachel visited a brothel. “We walked up sets of stairs to a hallway lined with rooms,” she recalled. “Each of these rooms was a waiting area that then had multiple doors that opened to bedrooms. This was where the women slept, as well as took customers.”

She sat down with two of the women in a waiting room and asked them their stories. One of the them, still in her early twenties and already a brothel veteran, said that unlike Rachel she had no opportunity, no way out. Although there were no bars or chains, she was trapped.

Trafficking is, in economic terms, people with opportunity and resources preying on those without, or put more simply, the rich paying to sleep with the poor. And Rachel, who had grown up with so much opportunity, now faced a woman whose life was shaped by the absence of opportunity. The consequences were unbearable. “I realized then that prevention was my calling,” said Rachel. “That no person should ever get to a place in their life where they’ve lost hope.”

About that same time Rachel was introduced to another Rachel, filmmaker Rachel Sparks, who was producing a film about trafficking in Thailand. When they both returned to the States they connected over similar experiences, and very similar conclusions: that trafficking is enabled by poverty, lack of education, a fundamental devaluation of girls and women, and that preventing trafficking starts with empowering girls.

In northern Thailand many families can’t afford much education, and by age 15 girls often have no choice but to drop out of school and start making an income for the family. But without the skills that a good education provides their chances to make money are extremely limited.

Student in Northern Thailand

Rachel signed on to help produce the documentary, and to start a non-profit alongside the film to start doing the work of education and empowerment—the work of prevention—in Thailand. Today that non-profit, The SOLD Project, has 140 students on scholarship, giving them the education that might save them from the world of trafficking and prostitution. These students get mentored by staff and older students, and have access to a resource center that gives them a fun and encouraging place to spend their non-school hours. SOLD also teaches the communities where they work about the tricks and terrors of trafficking, helping bind them together in a sort of safety net of prevention.

The 14-year-old girl at the beginning of our story is one of these students. Her sister came to SOLD, scared, and told them about the trafficker. A thousand dollars is a near life-changing sum in the hills of northern Thailand, especially for a family in hard times, as theirs was. Many girls, too many, have been taken in by such shiny, empty promises.

But this 14-year-old girl said no. She told the SOLD staff later that she remembered the the anti-trafficking training she’d been given and she simply told the woman no. And the next morning, instead of going to a brothel, she went to school.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that her life was saved.

This is what Rachel is after, that more girls, indeed all girls, have the education and opportunity to say no. “This is our message,” she says, “that child prostitution and exploitation can be prevented, and we all have a roll to play in ensuring that prevention.” And somehow her simple story about a girl in northern Thailand, more than a raft of statistics and annual reports, makes me think she must be right. 

The Rachel, Ember Arts

All this July we’re giving 50% of our online sales to The SOLD Project in Rachel’s honor. And this necklace is a special, limited edition piece we’ve designed to represent SOLD’s work to prevent human trafficking.

The necklace is made of two types of recycled paper beads: black beads, which represent the dangers of trafficking, and beads made from old books, which represent the stories that SOLD are helping their students live.

There are four sections of story beads along the necklaces sides, representing the four pillars of SOLD’s work: Education, Mentorship, Resources, and Awareness. And there are 140 beads in total, representing the 140 students SOLD currently has on scholarship. And the necklace transitions from dark in the back, through the four pillars, to bright stories in the front. It represents Rachel’s dream and The SOLD Project’s continuing mission to lead children out of trafficking’s dark halls and into the light of opportunity.

Nominate Our Next Ember Hero

Nominate an Ember HeroTwice every year we choose a new Ember Hero, a young woman chasing a beautiful dream to make the world a better place. We share her story with the world and donate 50% of our online sales to her dream for one month. Past Heroes are empowering sex trafficking survivors, creating jobs in the developing world, and working to end conflict in central Africa. Learn more about each of them on our Ember Heroes page.

Now we want your help to find our next Ember Hero. Use the form below to nominate a woman you think should have her dream featured and supported by the Ember community. We’ll narrow down the nominations and then open it to our community to vote for the winner.

Update, May 3, 2013: Nominations are closed. Voting begins soon!

Becky Straw, Ember Hero

Becky Straw is our Fall 2012 Ember Hero. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to her organization, The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Do not start a nonprofit, says Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, a nonprofit. She makes a strong case. If you start a nonprofit you’ll be broke, stressed, and you’ll have to be boring while you work long hours with no money. You will be rejected a lot. And, by the odds, you’ll fail within a few years.

Becky has been through all of it except the failing. For the last two years she lived couch-to-couch, maxing out her credit cards and relying on gracious friends and family, and working with her co-founder Jody Landers to build the foundation of an enormous vision. They aim to create one million jobs in the developing world within a decade.

Sitting across the table from Becky in a cafe in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, she says she’s tired from flying across the world and spending three long days in the field catching up with a social business she partners with. Still she crackles with energy. I’ve been in the country three extra, less busy days and I’m fading with jet lag. She shares with me the grand vision she and her partner are building, lamenting that it’s hard to shrink it down to the elevator pitch that many would-be backers want.

Her vision sees good businesses in poor countries as the final solution to poverty, and to many other endemic problems, like access to clean water and affordable healthcare. The Adventure Project aims to focus international attention and money on these businesses, helping them scale and make the biggest positive impact.

And, in a way, it all started with swimming.

“As a kid I was terrible,” Becky told me later over email. “I’m not trying to be modest, I have multiple last place ribbons to prove it.” Then, when she was twelve, a swim coach took her aside and gave her this advice: “Everything in life is 90% hard work and only 10% talent, so just work harder than everyone else.”

“That stuck with me, and he was right,” said Becky. “I put my head down and never stopped trying.” Her hard work earned her a scholarship to swim collegiately on a team that won two conference titles. She still wasn’t the fastest on the team (“I was the worst of the best”) but, she recalls, “it didn’t really matter to me, because I learned that I love to work hard, and will go to great lengths to make something happen.”

 

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut, and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again.”

 

That sort of determination, ‘Grit’, as it’s often called, is being hailed by top researchers as one of the most important characteristics of successful people. And Becky clearly has large grit reserves. Which means that she could likely succeed at just about anything: movie making, real estate development, technology startups, fields that could win her fame or fortune or both. So why put all that determination towards stopping poverty?

“I think the main experience for me was volunteering in Romania after college,” she said. A couple from Ohio ran a group home for kids who had been orphaned and abused. Some of them had been confined to cribs for the first ten years of their lives and had to learn to walk starting at age eleven.

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut,” said Becky, “and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again. It made me horribly sad to see the vast disparity between the rich and poor. But it was also incredibly hopeful, because I witnessed resilience and love. And it gave me purpose.”

She earned a Master’s in International Social Welfare from Columbia before joining a fledgling non-profit called charity: water. Becky was employee number three, and helped launch one of the most innovative and successful non-profits in the world. She left charity: water during some challenging organizational growth pains and soon reconnected with a donor named Jody she had become fast friends with a year earlier during a trip to Liberia. Over dinner in Colorado they discovered their common passion for social enterprise and started a Google document titled, “Launch List,” filled with items like “Assemble a board” and “Get charitable status”.

They started in on the to do list in October 2010 and launched The Adventure Project a month later.

So far they have partnered with four social ventures in four developing countries, creating over 350 jobs. These businesses are helping solve the problems of hunger, water, environment, and healthcare, and are serving almost 900,000 people.

When I met her in Uganda she had been visiting one of these partners, a company called Living Goods that combines the Avon door-to-door sales model with the effectiveness of community driven healthcare. Women are trained as community health workers and visit the homes of their neighbors, checking on family health and offering advice and selling low-cost solutions where necessary.

On her organization’s blog Becky shares a story (with beautiful photos from Esther Havens) that epitomizes the impact she and Jody are having. A Ugandan woman named Gertrude, recently widowed and left with three young children, was hired and trained by Living Goods as they expanded to her village. When she started visiting homes she met a woman who had three children sick with malaria and no money for medication. Gertrude decided to trust the woman and paid for the medications herself before moving on to the next house. Two days later the children had recovered, the woman had repaid Gertrude for the medication, and the village was buzzing that Gertrude had saved these children’s lives. Now her new health business is booming and she can afford to send her kids to school. And all throughout the village she is known as “the Kind One.”

Becky’s dream, and the vision of The Adventure Project, is to take Gertrude’s story and multiply it by a million. One million new jobs. One million people solving their communities’ problems. One million families out of poverty. It’s the kind of goal that will take, more than anything, a lot of grit.

Learn more about Becky’s work here. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Elena Bondar, Ember Hero

In Elena’s honor, we are donating 50% of our online sales for one month to her nonprofit program Two Wings. Click to shop our Spring Collection.Elena Bondar, Ember Hero

Elena Bondar downplays her big move. About six months ago she quit her comfortable job in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles, a city where she had never lived and knew almost no one, in order to chase her dream.

But she’s not trying to act or sing. Elena is building a program to launch survivors of sex trafficking towards their dream careers. She calls the program Two Wings. Sex trafficking, she told us, is not confined to the infamous red light districts of Thailand and India. It’s a frighteningly large and hidden criminal industry in America, too. And Los Angeles is one of its centers.

Elena was born in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Her family was persecuted by the communist regime because of their religion and they dreamed of escaping to America. Finally, in 1988, they got the chance.

“We packed one suitcase per person to journey to an unknown land,” she said. “I was five years old when we left our home and was not happy to leave the only life I knew.” Continue reading

Stella Safari, Ember Hero

In Stella’s honor we’re donating 50% of online sales for one month to Action Kivu, a group funding the visionary work of Amani Matabaro in Congo. Click here to shop.

Stella with Amani in Mumosho
Stella with Amani Matabaro and the women of the Mumosho Peace Market.

This July I took my first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has not seen sustained peace for more than a century. I was lucky to travel with an amazing young woman by the name of Stella Safari, who was taking a different sort of first trip. This was her first time to Congo in 12 years, since fleeing war at the age of eight.

As she returned 12 years later, now a student at Dartmouth and a leader among her peers, she brought with her a mission: to inspire Congo’s youth to invest in their country, so that future generations can enjoy peace and prosperity in Congo.

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Michelle Larson: Ember Hero

[Ember Hero: A woman who inspires hope. To show our appreciation we donate 50% of online sales to the non-profit of her choice for one month.]

Michelle: Ember Hero

Michelle Larson doesn’t look the type to wade through knee-deep trash along the border of two developing countries. She’s pretty, stylish, and at the very least hygienic. Nonetheless she points to one such jaunt into the garbage as a formational moment in her life.

“The first time I took a visit to the city garbage dump in Mae Sot, Thailand [a Thai city on the border with Burma], I found myself knee deep in the trash, playing with the children who live there,” Michelle recounted to us by email from Mae Sot.  “Many of them had skin problems, horrible coughs, and smelled like… trash.” The children’s Burmese mother said that settling her family in the dump was the lesser of two evils, that keeping her family in Burma was far more dangerous.

Michelle has since spent the last several years traversing the borderlands of Thailand and Burma, educating herself on the brutal military regime that tyrannizes the Burmese people to this day, and exploring ways to support the many refugees that flee for their lives.

She helped found an organization called Eleho that publicizes the hardships of people in Burma and supports the best organizations serving them. And recently she was asked by those organizations to teach English to Community Health Workers, helping them to better understand the medical texts and drug labels that they rely upon. She is there now, working on a voluntary basis to spread hope in Burma.

We are proud to announce that Michelle is our next Ember Hero, and that 50% of all online sales through the end of October will be donated to Eleho to support Michelle’s work. You can shop online here.

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Lisa Dougan: Ember Hero

[Ember Hero: n – A woman who makes the world a more hopeful place. To show our appreciation we donate 50% of online sales to the charity of her choice for one month.]
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Talking to Lisa Dougan you might not know what an important force for hope she is. She speaks with unswerving humility about herself, and would likely turn the conversation to you, your interests and your successes, rather than focus on her own.

In fact even her success tends to focus on other people, on building peace and opportunity for those who find them lacking. She has helped open hundreds of thousands of eyes to Africa’s longest running war, seeded a community that bridges socioeconomic divides, and was recently invited to the Oval Office to meet President Obama in recognition for her advocacy and lobbying for children in East and Central Africa.

She is, in short, an inspiration. And our first Ember Hero.

In appreciation of her contribution to hope in our world we are donating 50% of all proceeds from our online sales through the end of the month to Lisa’s chosen charity: the Young Life Columbia Heights Program, which is investing in the lives of Washington DC teenagers from rough backgrounds with faithful, caring mentorship. Ember’s contribution will specifically go to help 30 of these teens attend a summer camp with Young Life that offers them the chance to connect more deeply with caring mentors and experience a different perspective on life.

Shop online thru July 31, and 50% will go to Young Life Columbia Heights.

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