Sometimes the best ways to help people are the simplest. To establish a charity/NGO you can hire consultants to determine needs, attorneys to file articles of incorporation and accounting firms to look after the books. You can open headquarters and offices; buy a fleet of Range Rovers and hold catered executive meetings in oak-paneled boardrooms. You can hire executive search firms to find just the right highly compensated board members, create a complicated organizational hierarchy, make intricate decision making flow charts and plan lavish awards banquets in expensive hotels. Or, can just see a need and fill it.
Mac Maness first visited Laos in 2010 and fell in love with the country and its people. After only a 30-day visit he decided to leave his life in the United States and make this landlocked SE Asian country his home. After seeing the mind-numbing poverty in many remote areas combined with the still lingering effects of the Vietnam War, Mac decided to dedicate himself to improving the lives of people in his new home and started working with charitable organizations tasked with bringing clean, safe drinking water to remote areas of Laos.
[pullquote]Soap4Life is proof that good ideas don’t have to be huge ideas.[/pullquote]
These organizations were certainly doing good works, but there remained a problem. Although people in these remote villages now had access to clean water; dishwashing and a lack of education about hygiene in general continued to thwart further progress. Another problem that was acting as a barrier to health, the last gap between clear and sustainable success of the projects was so simple as to be forgotten or overlooked: There was no soap.
Soap and good hygiene are things that you and I take for granted. From the time we are old enough to listen, we are taught to wash our hands and use plenty of soap. In wealthier countries soap is so plentiful and affordable we almost take it for granted. For families living on less that $1,000 USD/year in remote and mountainous regions of Laos, soap is not only hard to find; to villagers, without education it seems like only an expensive luxury. Seeing firsthand the impact this problem can have on communities — through diarrhea, skin infections and other diseases — Mac and his wife La, a native Laotian, decided that they could do the most good by finding a way to teach hygiene and bring soap to these villages.
It was a perfect combination. Mac, through his training as a Primitive Technologies instructor, knew that soap could be made mostly from ingredients already used in the villages for cooking. La from her upbringing and familial connections knew where the issues were most dire and had ready access to areas where the people were naturally skeptical of outsiders (many of these people have heard promises of help that never arrived). La also speaks a hill tribe language, which breaks down more barriers. It was a natural fit and on January 1, 2014 Mac and La created Soap4Life.
Mac and La have developed a three-phase program that not only aids people by helping them overcome basic hygiene issues; they hope that through training and providing the equipment to women, so that they can locally produce quality soap products, their efforts will be sustainable. Along with soap training, they are also teaching basic business practices with the hope that these women will be able to sell their products in neighboring villages. Also, in collaboration with local basket makers and textile artisans — who create decorative packaging — they are hoping to broaden their product base with naturally enhanced herbal and floral soaps, to sell in Handicraft Expos and even potentially in foreign markets.
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They are progressing slowly but deliberately. Their products have been well received, and in villages, schools and orphanages where they have distributed the soap, there have been fewer reports of intestinal disease and other maladies. Soap-4-Life is in the process of applying for non-profit 501(c)(3) status, but with the cost of doing that, they could provide two or three more villages with the equipment and materials needed to get started making soap. They do accept donations. Sarah and I have sponsored a woman and one village. If you are interested in contributing please contact Soap4Life directly. We have no affiliation with Soap4Life other than we have become friends of Mac and La, we believe in what they are doing and I have traveled to some remote, very remote, villages to make pictures for them.
Now, I don’t mean to pick on large charities and NGOs. Most are certainly doing good work and sometimes it takes a large organization to accomplish big things. On the other hand, inefficiencies can result when an organization gets too big and sometimes focus gets lost. In my experience, there is also a tendency for them to begin focusing on the next project before prior projects are brought to a successful, sustainable, conclusion. Sadly, I have also seen instances where large organizations become nothing more than businesses focusing as much on themselves as on those they originally set out to help.
Soap4Life is proof that good ideas don’t have to be huge ideas. Is Soap-4-Life going to change the world? Probably not in a revolutionary way, but for some villagers living in remote areas of northern Laos it could make a big difference in their quality of lives and really; isn’t that what is important?
You can find out more at the Soap4Life website.