Faith, Soap and Charity

Every day, in millions of hotel rooms in America, something weird happens. The housekeeping staff makes the bed, cleans the room, and replaces the soap, removing the used bar and leaving a fresh bar in its place. This simple American habit of throwing away 800 million bars of hotel soap a year completely befuddled Derreck Kayongo when he first experienced it fifteen years ago, in a hotel in Philadelphia.

As a child, Kayongo’s family had fled Uganda for Kenya during the Idi Amin regime, and he was all too familiar with the desperation of refugees who have little or no access to clean water and soap. Kayongo was educated in Kenya, came to America to earn his Bachelors and Masters degrees, and continued to rise to his position as a senior level humanitarian relief expert working for CARE in Atlanta– but he never forgot the extravagant waste of hotel soap that first struck him. “I kept thinking, what if we took some of this soap back home, recycled it and made brand new soap to give to people who don’t have any?”

Refugee mother & child, by Pierre Holtz for OCHA

Not having soap is a clear and present danger in refugee camps all across Africa. Hand-washing is the first line of defense in the prevention of acute respiratory and diarrhea diseases that ravage camps, particularly afflicting children under the age of 5. In Uganda alone, 200,000 children a year die from preventable diseases. Studies indicate that hand-washing with soap can reduce the risk of these diseases by 42-65% — which makes every bar of soap we throw away a tragic missed opportunity.

Derreck with the housekeeping staff of the Ritz.

So last year, Kayongo and his wife Sarah started the Global Soap Project to recover and recycle soap from American hotels: sanitizing, melting and remodeling it into new bars that can be distributed to refugee camps in Africa. To the Kayongos’ great amazement, hotels like the InterContinental, the Ritz, and hundreds of others enthusiastically embraced his idea. Volunteers lined up to help. And today, just months later, he has tons of soap accumulated in warehouses and a brand new machine to recycle the old into fresh new bars of soap that will be shipped as extra cargo on ships already making the trip to Africa. It’s a simple idea but enormously complex to carry off. Luckily, Kayongo has boundless enthusiasm that is absolutely contagious.

“Yesterday I got a call from a man in Minnesota who had lined up hotels to collect soap, stored it, aggregated it, and arranged for trucks with extra space to ship it down to Atlanta. It’s that incredible kindness of ordinary Americans that makes me so happy!”

When you hear Kayongo talk, it’s hard not to want to be a part of all this good, clean fun. “It makes you feel good to give,” he says, eyes shining. “It’s really powerful to love your neighbor. There’s such great energy in that!”

My $100 today goes to Global Soap Project and all those amazing bubbles of energy.