By Lynne Hendricks
---- — At 17, while on a trip to Ghana with some classmates, Lauren Sundstrom stepped into an orphanage where 300 children were living and studying under very difficult conditions and refused to leave them behind.
And now, for her efforts over the past two years aimed at lifting the group out of poverty and offering them educational opportunities, Sundstrom received a hero’s welcome in our nation’s capital, receiving praise and recognition last weekend at a gala event honoring 102 selfless teens from across the country at the 18th Annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.
Escorted on private tours of the Capitol building and Arlington Cemetery and treated to a special dinner at the Smithsonian Institute hosted by Kevin Spacey and Olympic Gold Medalist Allyson Felix, the trip was aimed at giving something back to a group of teens who have given so much of themselves.
Having spent the past two years forgoing some of the traditional rites of a teen life to devote more time to her Clothes for Hope campaign for Ghana, Sundstrom enjoyed every minute of the five-day, all-expenses-paid trip to D.C. Coming as it did just a month and a half before her graduation from Newburyport High School, it’s capped off what has been an amazing journey.
“It was unbelievable,” said Sundstrom. “It was definitely an experience of a lifetime.”
Working from her home in the West End to grow a fundraising campaign she anointed Clothes for Hope, which is based on collecting and selling gently used clothing, Sundstrom has raised $79,000 for the New Seed International Orphanage. Of that total, $49,000 came from her sale in March, which saw a huge uptick in donations from merchants like John Farley Clothiers and his suppliers, French Lessons, Pretty Poppy and Amy Williams, among others.
The original $30,000 earned from her first fundraiser has already funded the building of a new middle school in the Ghanaian village she first visited in 2012, the Clothes for Hope Library and over 180 uniforms and school books for students of a nearby public school.
“They are very strict about uniform policy,” said Sundstrom. “I really wanted to give children new uniforms so their family wouldn’t have to pay for them and they could just go to school. Through Clothes for Hope we were able to send 180 kids to school there. It was fantastic. We provided them with whiteboards, computers, textbooks, workbooks, storybooks, toys and supplies and we did the same for the orphanage. It’s amazing how far the money can go.”
At New Seed a lot of the construction and architecture is based on a modular design — rectangle buildings around a center quad, said Sundstrom, which made the building of a middle school and library in the village a surprisingly economical project.
When Sundstrom first visited the orphanage, which houses 150 children and serves as an education center for 150 more, the older children waited for the elementary students to leave before coming to school. Now they have their very own space and an incentive to stay in school.
“If they are not orphans and they can’t afford to pay for books or uniforms, then they have to leave school. They leave when the family needs them. So now that local residents can see this beautiful school at New Seed they’ll hopefully want to send their kids there. They just have to pay for their books and uniforms, which will help the orphanage too.”
The nearby Clothes for Hope Library is a strong selling point, too, said Sundstrom, and one that will grow to be more of a draw when she starts allocating funds from her most recent sale.
“This year I want to concentrate on making the Clothes for Hope Library really amazing,” said Sundstrom, with textbooks and encyclopedias and virtually everything the students need. “They have enormous aspirations. They just don’t unfortunately have the resources. So I really want to provide that for them. That’s going to be my new focus.”
But for now, she’s going to spend some time focusing on enjoying her final weeks of high school, relishing time spent with friends during Senior Week, fretting over final exams, and pondering her future as a student at Bowdoin University in Maine where she’s enrolled next fall.
“I’m planning on majoring in government and legal studies,” she said, “and traveling and finding out how other countries work together. Ultimately, I want to go into a job to learn how to make that better, to make the world smaller so I can make a difference.”
She’ll stop off in Ghana before heading off to college, but expects that afterward she’ll be devoting much of her time to her new college adventure. The future of Clothes for Hope may have to be put on hold for a bit, she said, but she’s got her mind set on taking it to the next level by inspiring others to lend a hand.
“I speak at schools very often and work with students a lot,” she said. “That’s my favorite thing to do — work with children and get them to realize they can change the world. Whether I can put on a huge fundraiser … I’m not sure I can do a sale of this magnitude next spring. But I do want to come home and talk to students and still be a role model in this community.”