Wave Makers
by Yvonne Gay Fowler

Photo courtesy of Rachel Rothgery ’08

Rachel Rothgery ’08
Major: Undeclared Independent, Creative Writing for Social Change
Hometown: Eugene, Oregon

The youngsters in the Guatemalan orphanage are excited to see Rachel Rothgery. A busy volunteer, she has 45 children in her charge, and time with each is precious. Two-year-old Angel has autism. Five-year-old Carla is deaf; she’s inspired Rothgery to learn sign language.

Rothgery traveled to Guatemala this spring in part to study Spanish; later she’ll spend three months volunteering in Bolivia. This summer, her newly sharpened language skills will be put to the test in a low-income HIV community in the States.
“I was 12 when I recognized the power of privilege, in terms of freedom, education, and the small space we’re each allotted on earth,” Rothgery says. It’s also when, as a determined preteen, she began raising money for charitable organizations, including the Toronto-based Free the Children (FTC), a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated organization funded and driven by children.

Rothgery started an Oberlin chapter of FTC her freshman year and launched a fund-raising campaign to build a primary school in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya. She took a job as an America Reads tutor at Oberlin’s Eastwood Elementary School, donating her paychecks to the campaign. Those funds, combined with proceeds from a dozen fund-raising events, collected $6,000 for the School for Kenya Campaign, enough to complete the building and outfit it with books, desks, a blackboard, and a latrine. Crucial to the success of the campaign was co-director Lora DiFranco ’08, who was largely responsible for raising another $3,000, as well as the student FTC chapter in Rothgery’s Oregon hometown.

The School for Kenya Campaign had a lasting effect on Rothgery’s family and friends as well, many of whom stopped simply cheering from the sidelines. Her father, a college English teacher, worked an activist curriculum into his classes, and both parents transformed their home and offices into practical centers of philanthropy. Rothgery’s roommate, Penina Eilberg-Schwartz ’08, took a semester off and raised $3,300 for the American Jewish World Service to help stop genocide in Darfur, Africa.

Always pushing forward, Rothgery plans to launch a campaign against child soldiers when she returns to Oberlin in September. “And, if Oberlin FTC agrees, Sierra Leone will have a new school by the end of 2007.”

Where else has community service taken you? In high school I traveled to Ecuador with a branch of FTC called Leaders Today. We attended the inaugurations of some of the FTC schools that had been completed. We also worked on medicinal farms, talked with street kids, and dug foundations for housing.

Have you always felt supported in your projects? In middle school, I initially closeted my idea of launching a youth activist group. I didn’t see anyone else my age expressing the same social concerns, so I felt embarrassed and kept things to myself. When I finally brought it up to my friends, they were excited; some even helped organize the School for Kenya Campaign. I’ve always had support from friends and family, but I’ve never shaken that middle-school fear that people might find my efforts overzealous and naïve. So I strive to complete a larger-scale project each time, and each time I meet with less skepticism.

A friend is unsure if she has what it takes to make a difference. How do you respond? The way you regard the next stranger can be activism. The way you fill the next moment can be activism. Whether you mean to or not, you are already influencing people around you. Activism is about reining in that influence and directing it toward improving lives. You don’t have to be radical, you just have to choose to be profoundly decent.