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Rachel’s Last Fund-Raiser
by Nicholas Kristof
[Today’s post was originally published in the NYTimes Opinion Pages on August 10, 2011.]
[Many young people] believe, in a wonderfully earnest way, in creating a better world.
In the midst of this grim summer, my faith in humanity has been restored by the saga of Rachel Beckwith. She could teach my generation a great deal about maturity and unselfishness — even though she’s just 9 years old, or was when she died on July 23.
Rachel lived outside Seattle and early on showed a desire to give back. At age 5, she learned at school about an organization called Locks of Love, which uses hair donations to make wigs for children who have lost their own hair because of cancer or other diseases. Rachel then asked to have her long hair shorn off and sent to Locks of Love.
“She said she wanted to help the cancer kids,” her mother, Samantha Paul, told me. After the haircut, Rachel announced that she would grow her hair long again and donate it again after a few years to Locks of Love. And that’s what she did.
Then when she was 8 years old, her church began raising money to build wells in Africa through an organization called charity:water. Rachel was aghast when she learned that other children had no clean water, so she asked to skip having a ninth birthday party. In lieu of presents, she asked her friends to donate $9 each to charity:water for water projects in Africa.
Rachel’s ninth birthday was on June 12, and she had set up a birthday page on the charity:water Web site with a target of $300. Alas, Rachel was able to raise only $220 — which had left her just a bit disappointed.
Then, on July 20, as Rachel was riding with her family on the highway, two trucks collided and created a 13-car pileup. Rachel’s car was hit by one of the trucks, and although the rest of her family was unhurt, Rachel was left critically injured.
Church members and friends, seeking some way of showing support, began donating on Rachel’s birthday page — charitywater.org/Rachel — and donations surged past her $300 goal, and kept mounting. As family and friends gathered around Rachel’s bedside, they were able to tell her — even not knowing whether she could hear them — that she had exceeded the $47,544 that the singer Justin Bieber had raised for charity:water on his 17th birthday.
“I think she secretly had a crush on him, but she would never admit it,” her mom said. “I think she would have been ecstatic.”
When it was clear that Rachel would never regain consciousness, the family decided to remove life support. Her parents donated her hair a final time to Locks of Love, and her organs to other children. Word spread about Rachel’s last fund-raiser.
Contributions poured in, often in $9 increments, although one 5-year-old girl sent in the savings in her piggy bank of $2.27. The total donations soon topped $100,000, then $300,000. Like others, I was moved and donated. As I write this, more than $850,000 has been raised from all over the world, including donations from Africans awed by a little American girl who cared about their continent.
“What has been so inspiring about Rachel is that she has taught the adults,” said Scott Harrison, the founder of charity:water. “Adults are humbled by the unselfishness of this little girl.”
Yet this is a story not just of one girl, but of a generation of young people working creatively to make this a better world. Mr. Harrison is emblematic of these young people. Now 35, he established charity:water when he was 30, and it has taken off partly because of his mastery at social media. (He’s not as experienced in well-drilling, so the wells are actually dug by expert groups like International Rescue Committee.)
Youth activism has a long history, but this ethos of public service is on the ascendant today — and today’s kids don’t just protest against injustices, as my contemporaries did, but many are also remarkable problem-solvers.
As for Ms. Paul, she’s planning a trip on the anniversary of her daughter’s death next year to see some of the wells being drilled in Africa in her daughter’s name. “It’ll be overwhelming to see Rachel’s wells,” she said, “to see what my 9-year-old daughter has done for people all over the world, to meet the people she has touched.”
[As of this posting, Rachel has raised $1,186,208 for clean water projects that will serve approximately 60,000 people!]