Atlanta (CNN) -- That bar of soap you used once or twice during your last hotel stay might now be helping poor children fight disease.
Derreck Kayongo and his Atlanta-based Global Soap Project collect used hotel soap from across the United States. Instead of ending up in landfills, the soaps are cleaned and reprocessed for shipment to impoverished nations such as Haiti, Uganda, Kenya and Swaziland.
"I was shocked just to know how much (soap) at the end of the day was thrown away," Kayongo said. Each year, hundreds of millions of soap bars are discarded in North America alone. "Are we really throwing away that much soap at the expense of other people who don't have anything? It just doesn't sound right."
Kayongo, a Uganda native, thought of the idea in the early 1990s, when he first arrived to the U.S. and stayed at a hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He noticed that his bathroom was replenished with new soap bars every day, even though they were only slightly used.
"I tried to return the new soap to the concierge since I thought they were charging me for it," Kayongo said. "When I was told it was just hotel policy to provide new soap every day, I couldn't believe it."
Kayongo called his father -- a former soap maker in Uganda -- and shared the experience.
"My dad said people in America can afford to throw it away. But I just started to think, 'What if we took some of this soap and recycled it, made brand new soap from it and then sent it home to people who couldn't afford soap?' "
For Kayongo, collecting soap is "a first line of defense" mission to combat child-mortality around the world.
Each year, more than 2 million children die from diarrheal illness -- the approximate population of San Antonio, Texas. According to the World Health Organization, these deaths occur almost exclusively among toddlers living in low-income countries.
"The issue is not the availability of soap. The issue is cost," Kayongo said. "Make $1 a day, and soap costs 25 cents. I'm not a good mathematician, but I'm telling you I'm not going to spend that 25 cents on a bar of soap. I'm going to buy sugar. I'm going to buy medicine. I'm going to do all the things I think are keeping me alive.
"When you fall sick because you didn't wash up your hands, it's more expensive to go to the hospital to get treated. And that's where the problem begins and people end up dying."
Kayongo, 41, is familiar with the stress that poverty and displacement can create. Almost 30 years ago, he fled Uganda with his parents because of the mass torture and killings by former Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin, he said.
Witnessing the devastation of his homeland shaped Kayongo's mission and still haunts him today.
--CNN Hero Derreck Kayongo
"It's a long-term grieving process that sort of never ends," he said. "As a child coming from school, passing dead bodies for 10 solid years -- 'It's not cool,' as my son would put it. It's not good. A lot of my friends were orphaned, and I was lucky."
Kayongo and his parents fled to Kenya, where he would visit friends and family in refugee camps and struggle to survive -- sometimes without basic necessities.
"We lost everything," Kayongo said. "We didn't live in the camps, but we sacrificed a lot. The people worse off lived in the camps. Soap was so hard to come by, even completely nonexistent sometimes. People were getting so sick simply because they couldn't wash their hands."
Kayongo transitioned from the tough life of a refugee to become a college graduate, a U.S. citizen and a field coordinator for CARE International, a private humanitarian aid organization. But he has not forgotten his roots -- or the fact that many refugees in Africa continue to lack access to basic sanitation.
"As a new immigrant and a new citizen to this country, I feel very blessed to be here," he said. "But it's important, as Africans living in the Diaspora, that we don't forget what we can do to help people back at home. It's not good enough for us to complain about what other people aren't doing for us. It's important that we all band together, think of an idea and pursue it."
With the support of his wife, local friends and Atlanta-based hotels, Kayongo began his Global Soap Project in 2009.
So far, 300 hotels nationwide have joined the collection effort, generating 100 tons of soap. Some participating hotels even donate high-end soaps such as Bvlgari, which retails up to $27 for a single bar.
Volunteers across the U.S. collect the hotel soaps and ship them to the group's warehouse in Atlanta. On Saturdays, Atlanta volunteers assemble there to clean, reprocess and package the bars.
"We do not mix the soaps because they come with different pH systems, different characters, smells and colors," Kayongo said. "We sanitize them first, then heat them at very high temperatures, chill them and cut them into final bars. It's a very simple process, but a lot of work."
A batch of soap bars is only released for shipment once one of its samples has been tested for pathogens and deemed safe by a third-party laboratory. The Global Soap Project then works with partner organizations to ship and distribute the soap directly to people who need it -- for free.
To date, the Global Soap Project has provided more than 100,000 bars of soap for communities in nine countries.
Kenya Relief is one organization that has benefited. Last summer, Kayongo personally delivered 5,000 bars of soap to Kenya Relief's Brittney's Home of Grace orphanage.
"When we were distributing the soap, I could sense that there was a lot of excitement, joy, a lot of happiness," said Kayongo, whose work was recently recognized by the Atlanta City Council, which declared May 15 as Global Soap Project Day in Atlanta.
"It's a reminder again of that sense of decency. They have (someone) who knows about their situation, and is willing to come and visit them ... to come and say, 'We are sorry ... We're here to help.' "
Want to get involved? Check out the Global Soap Project website at www.globalsoap.org and see how to help.
Some say "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity". This is definitely the case for 11 year old Alfred Saah Kandakai from Liberia. The young man played a tennis match against Mr. Tani Hanna, the Chairman of Games World International in Liberia.
Mr. Hanna was surprised at how skillful Saah played for his age and decided to give him an opportunity of a lifetime. He is sending Saah to Barcelona, Spain to train for three weeks at Sanchez Casal one of the most famous tennis academy's in the world. What an opportunity!
Mrs. Anna Bsaibes, a shareholder at the hotel where the lucky match occurred, gave the following statement to frontpageafrica: "We are going to develop this young and talented tennis star’s skills at one of the World best tennis academy in Sanshall Casal in Barcelona where such greats star like Roger Federal, Rafael Nadah and Andy Murray attended".
How did Saah get so good at tennis? He accredits that to his father, his present coach, who started a refugee's tennis academy in 2006.
Peace & Love,
Although on opposite sides of the world and 8 hours time difference, The Philippines and Liberia are finding a way to come together. Liberia is still slowly recovering from a civil war that claimed the lives of over 250,000 Liberians. The UN established a peacekeeping mission in 2003 to ensure Liberia continues to improve.
The Philippines has recently deployed 115 individuals as part of a UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia. The 16th Philippine Contingent consists of 107 enlisted personnel, 1 medic, and 7 officers.
It is beautiful to see nations from around the world helping each other. We are in a large ecosystem all interconnected. Both of these nations hold a special place in my heart because of family in each location. Thank you Philippines for helping out in Liberia!
Peace & Love,
For most people, climbing Africa's tallest mountain is an impossible achievement. But how about doing it without legs?
For Spencer West, nothing is impossible. Or as he would put it: everything is possible.
Nearly all of the 31-year-old American's life has proven the doctors wrong. When they amputated both of his legs right below the pelvis when he was 5, they warned that he would never be a functioning member of society. But West has led not only led a life that is remarkably normal compared to his doctors' prognosis – he has accomplished feats that, by any measure, are extraordinary.
Nothing is more extraordinary than his latest accomplishment: taking 20,000 "steps" to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Elevation: 19,300 feet. He climbed 80 percent of it on his hands – propelling his torso forward, one hand after another, along the trail for eight days. In a conversation with ABC News on the phone after he descended, his voice sounded strong – but he admitted his arms were a little sore and his hands a little cut up and bruised.
"It's literally climbing the largest mountain on Africa on your hands," he said. "I don't know if it can get much more challenging than that."
West hopes that people who hear about his accomplishment will be inspired to believe that nothing is impossible. Or, as he puts it, he hopes that people will "redefine their own possible."
"To use myself as an example – that if I enter life without legs and climb the largest mountain in Africa and overcome that challenge, what more can you do in your daily lives to define what's possible for you?" he asked. "We all have the ability to redefine what is possible -- whether you're missing your legs or not. Everyone has challenges and challenges can be overcome."
Even before Kilimanjaro, West had already overcome so much. He was born with a genetic disorder called sacral agenesis, which left his legs permanently crossed and his spine underdeveloped. He had two operations as a baby; the second cut off his legs for good.
But he says his parents instilled him with confidence that he could do anything he wanted, and that has given him the "strong backbone" that he was born without.
"From the day I was born they treated me just like everyone else, and they wanted me to have the same dreams and aspirations as everyone else did," he said. "I've just always seem myself as a regular person. I've never seen myself as a person without legs. I'm only reminded of that when I'm out in public."
He graduated from college and landed a well-paying job as an operations manager for a salon and spa. He drove a specially designed car that he could control with his hands, owned a house, and had a good life. But it took a trip to Kenya with the charity Free the Children to help him realize that he wasn't happy.
He realized he wanted to do more from his life and returned to Kenya a second time. There, he remembers being confronted by a little girl. "She said to me, 'I didn't know white people had conditions like yours.'" He realized that his life might be an inspiration for others.
"I wanted a job that not only paid well, but made the world a little bit of a better place," he said today by phone. "That's what I found in Kenya – not only how to use my story as a career, but then how to use that to give back to these incredible people that have given me so much. And that is wasn't really so much about material possessions, but actually helping others that made me happy."
He became a motivational speaker for the organization Me to We, founded by the same people as Free the Children, and started encouraging audiences to overcome their challenges. He decided the climb Kilimanjaro to raise $750,000 for the Kenyans who had "helped me find my passion," he said.
The money would build three boreholes and provide clean water to hundreds of thousands for those who have been struggling from Africa's worst drought in 60 years. In Kenya and the surrounding countries, the drought has poisoned millions of Africans' clean drinking water and killed off livestock that was once their sole source of income. Increasingly, children are being forced to work at home instead of go to school.
It took West and his two best friends one year to train to climb Africa's tallest peak.
The day he saw the peak, he says, will be one of the most memorable of his life.
"The moment the summit was within sight was incredible," he wrote on his blog during the ascent. "After seven grueling days of relentless climbing, after 20,000 feet of our blood, sweat and tears (and, let's face it, vomit) we had actually made it. We were at the top. The summit sign seemed almost like a mirage."
But it was not a mirage, and West redefined what was possible for him – and, he hopes, for anyone who comes across his story.
"Small things like learning to swim, or learning to drive standard for the first time, or maybe even it's taking an hour and reading to their kids," he said. "Small little steps to redefine what's possible in their own lives as well, as I've done with mine."
Liberia is a beautiful country on the coast of West Africa. Recently, this country has made vast improvements since the civil war tore apart the nation several years ago. CNN's Brenda Bush had a segment on CNN Newsroom about how the country is improving. It really is an interesting interview which holds a special place in my heart not only because it is good news, but also because my family is from Liberia.
In 2011, I had the privilege of going back to Liberia to visit family and friends. I too saw evidence of improvements in this beautiful land. This improvement cannot happen overnight, but slowly the world will see Liberia become the wonderful paradise that it once was. More to follow on my adventures in Liberia!
Be sure to check out the interview at CNN's Newsroom:
Peace and Love, Jon
The pop star on Monday announced plans with a new partner after mismanagement forced her scrap the first project there last year.
Madonna on Monday announced plans to build 10 new schools in Malawi with a new partner after mismanagement forced the pop star to scrap her first project there last year.
The singer, who has adopted two children from the impoverished southern African nation, said she hoped the 10 new schools would educate at least 1,000 children a year, half of them girls.
That is double the number of children she hoped to help with her previously planned academy for girls, which was scrapped in March 2011 because of mismanagement and cost overruns.
Madonna said her Raising Malawi charity was teaming up this time with the non-profit group buildOn, which has constructed 54 primary schools in Malawi in the last 19 years.
“I am excited that with the help of buildOn, we can maintain our ongoing commitment to move forward efficiently. We now will be able to serve twice as many children as we would have served with our old approach,” Madonna said in a statement.
“I have learned a great deal over the last few years and feel confident that we can reach our goals to educate children in Malawi, especially young girls, in a much more practical way. Constructing smaller schools in partnership with buildOn has restored my faith that we can accomplish what we promised we would,” she added.
Madonna’s earlier plan to build a state of the art girls school for about 400 girls just outside the Malawi capital Lilongwe collapsed last year, and the board of her Raising Malawi charity was fired. The New York Times said at the time that $3.8 million had been spent on the school with little to show for it.
The singer has lent $11 million to the organization which she co-founded in 2006.
Malawi has more than half a million children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and is ranked by the United Nations as one of the world’s 20 least developed countries.
Madonna’s plans for new schools came at the start of a busy week for the singer, actress and director. Her new movie “W.E”, which she wrote and directed, opens in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, she is performing at Sunday’s halftime show at the 2012 Super Bowl, and will release the first single from her upcoming new album on Feb 3.
Solar power has become the clean energy source du jour for the developing world, and for good reason — it’s relatively inexpensive and many solar panels are robust. But solar panels are often shipped internationally (or at least from distant locations), which makes them less than ideal, especially if a part needs to be fixed or replaced. Access:energy wants to bring a different kind of renewable energy — wind power — to Kenyans by teaching them to make their own turbines out of scrap metal and car parts.
More than 80 percent of Kenya’s population (about 30 million people) lacks access to electricity. The easiest way to get that power to residents is to teach them to make it. So Access:energy — a division of the Access:collective, which invests in appropriate technologies for East Africa — is teaching local Kenyan technicians to build the Night Heron wind turbine — a product that the organization calls the first "commercially viable, zero-import wind turbine."
The turbine generates power at two to three times lower cost than equivalent solar PV panels, can generate enough power for 50 rural homes (about 2.5 kWh per day) and, most importantly, can be built using locally sourced materials. The Night Heron turbines can also be laid out in modular arrays to accommodate growing need.
The uses are virtually endless: allowing people to charge mobile phones from home, giving clinics enough power to keep vaccines cool, providing non-polluting (read: non-kerosene) light for kids who want to study, and providing refrigeration for fishermen.
By teaching locals to build the turbines, Access:energy creates skilled jobs and breeds energy independence at the same time. It’s a big mission, but the organization is making progress. Access:energy recently announced that its first customer had put down money for a wind-powered "energy hub" for his house. Another energy hub is being built for a community radio station. And Access:energy has raised more than $15,000 on an IndieGoGo campaign (one perk: a hunky Kenyan mechanic calendar). Check out the campaign here.