LA-rooted One Dollar For Life thrives

Courtesy of One Dollar for Life
Teens lay cinder blocks to build the walls of a classroom during a 2014 One Dollar For Life trip to Nicaragua.

Robert Freeman didn’t intend to start One Dollar For Life.

In 2007, he was a social studies teacher at Los Altos High School. He felt his students growing disenchanted – their parents were losing their jobs, their friends were losing their homes. Los Altos kids might have been well-off as a whole, but some students were really struggling, and the others were tuned in to the nationwide economic hardship.

So Freeman wanted to show his students that they could do something to make the world better, that they weren’t powerless. He made a throwaway comment: “If you all give one dollar, I’ll get a classroom built for you in Africa.”

They followed through. That year, the school, with its 1,770 students, raised $1,851.

“I’m like, OMG – I’m on the hook for a classroom in Kenya now,” Freeman said.

The $1,851 was not quite enough to cover the cost of constructing a school in Kenya, but Freeman and his students appealed to other schools in California and asked for the same thing: just a dollar.

The nonprofit One Dollar For Life was born.

Dual mission

The organization was up-front about its dual mission from the beginning: complete projects that help underserved populations and inspire privileged people.

Freeman always wanted to show people that they could make a difference. He noted that when he shows students photos of the classrooms they paid for, they get 10 feet taller.

“Many times, it’s the first time a teenager has done something to help another person, and it affirms that deepest longing, which is to be an effective human being,” he said.

Freeman’s One Dollar For Life evangelism has paid off: This summer, the organization completed its 100th project. Then 101st. Then 102nd.

Over the past 10 years, the nonprofit group has experienced considerable growth. In the beginning, Freeman went around asking if anybody knew somebody in Africa, because he needed to figure out how to get a school built. Somebody knew somebody: A person who’d gone on a vacation to Kenya thought that their tour guide might be able to help, the tour guide knew a retired real estate developer and the real estate developer knew who needed a school and how to get it built.

Later projects followed via word-of-mouth. When Freeman was visiting that first school in Kenya, he stopped by an orphanage, and the woman running the facility said the kids were only eating corn, cabbage and potatoes, but if she had two cows, she could give each child two glasses of milk every day.

“I didn’t know how I was going to get her two cows, but I hadn’t ever built a classroom, either,” Freeman recalled.

He got her the cows.

Student involvement

From the first classroom in Kenya, students were part of the construction process. Groups from Los Altos, Mountain View and the Bay Area have since traveled to Nepal, Nicaragua and other countries to put the finishing touches on One Dollar For Life-sponsored construction projects or help out in some other way.

For Diana Chou, who graduated from Los Altos High in 2010 and served as president of the One Dollar For Life club, the organization has changed the way she sees her place in the world.

Chou went to Nicaragua in 2009 to work on a classroom for 150 Nicaraguan students, her first time visiting a developing country.

“Even as a singular individual who had never felt a sense of self-efficacy, I realized I could make a difference,” she said.

After taking a hard look at how her career aligns with her values, Chou decided to leave the world of consulting and find a job through which she can make a more concrete difference in the world. She directly credits that philosophy to her time with One Dollar For Life.

Taking kids from Los Altos to Nicaragua requires an orientation, which Freeman approaches like a history teacher. He talks with students about the history of U.S. colonialism and the U.S. meddling in other countries’ elections. He tries to impress upon the students that some of the places are poor as a direct or indirect result of their own country’s actions.

Next steps

The organization is going, and growing, strong. Freeman has retired from teaching and volunteers full time for One Dollar For Life, along with five other volunteers. They plan to open the organization up: from paper to digital, and from schools to the nation.

In Kenya, they’re starting an enterprise to manufacture reusable sanitary pads. They’ve had a program for distributing the pads to girls in Kenya, but the company they were buying the pads from raised its prices. So One Dollar For Life, in partnership with a Kenyan organization, Kiini Sustainable Initiative, launched a microenterprise that will make reusable sanitary pads at one-third the cost of the previous manufacturer. The kits are supposed to last for three years, which means a girl can manage her period for free and stay in school for three years longer. The microenterprise will employ locals in Nyeri, Kenya. Philip Kabiru, the head of Kiini Sustainable Initiative, said they will be able to make 200 kits each month, for $5 per kit.

Kabiru said One Dollar For Life is different from other similar organizations because it requires photos and updates on the progress of each project. Freeman put that system in place to avoid corruption, but the photos will soon serve another purpose. The team is rolling out a digital system so that people anywhere in the world can donate digitally and then receive regular updates on the progress of the projects to which they’ve contributed. A month after donating a dollar, the donor might receive a picture of the laid foundation of a school, ready for walls. Freeman wants to show as many people as possible what a tangible difference their dollar makes.

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