Jennifer Sarja ’88
By Kim Ansin Blanchard ’77,
Alumni Council Chair
The Laverack Family Alumni Award was established by Applewild’s founding Headmaster, William Laverack, his wife Persis Laverack, and his family, to celebrate the values that Mr. Laverack held as most important in life: dedication and generosity- specifically, being generous with one’s time, one’s love and one’s life.
This honor is to be given to Applewild alumni, who, in the course of work or volunteer efforts, contribute unselfishly to the common good and whose character, spirit and benevolent service have provided leadership and support for community.
This year, the Alumni Council is very proud to present the Laverack Family Alumni Award to Jennifer Sarja. Jen graduated from Applewild in 1988 and went on to graduate from Phillips
Exeter Academy in 1991. She earned her undergraduate degree in writing and history from New YorkUniversity’s TischSchool of the Arts in 1995. Jen is now the Executive Director of Youthinkwell Publishing, a non-profit corporation in California which gives children the opportunity to write or illustrate their own books and then publish them to raise money for charities they wish to support.
When the Alumni Council heard about Jen’s great works and vision we were just so proud that she is an alumna of Applewild!
The following is an excerpt from Jennifer’s Youthinkwell brochure entitled The Well Project:
“Exactly one year ago, I had the opportunity to join Save the Children’s Women’s Empowerment delegation to Ethiopia and Uganda. I saw firsthand the problems young girls and women face: poor health, little education, and few opportunities to make life any better. One of the greatest difficulties in the lives of girls in much of East Africa is that they cannot go to school. There is no time for school when they must spend hours a day walking in pursuit of water. Every time I saw a little girl by the roadside, scooping water from a muddy puddle, I knew there had to be a better way.”
So Jen decided to “do something”. Through her ingenuity, determination and generosity, Jen has indeed come up with many better ways.
Remarks by Jennifer Sarja ’88:
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think of something Applewild has given me. Most recently, a young woman from a local community college came into my office and asked if I taught Algebra. I guess the sign that said “writing center” didn’t clue her in. Well, she was failing and had nowhere else to turn, so I began to meet with her twice a week. I haven’t done algebra since the eighth grade, but Mrs. Kahan was such an inspiring teaching that I remembered it all as if it were yesterday. Anyway, I heard that you are retiring, and it is a great pleasure to be here to say in person how incredible I think you are. I have told many students about you.
It’s such a beautiful day. I’m curious to know… raise your hands, how many of you are disappointed that it’s not raining today? I hear you guys have been getting a lot of rain. It made the news in Los Angeles, which is saying a lot – usually our news is reserved for car chases and announcements from our action hero governor. The newscasters called the flooding “biblical.” For some of you, the damage may have only been the inconvenience of a canceled lacrosse game; for others, the rising waters may have posed a threat to property and safety.
Indeed an “inconvenient truth,” global warming seems to have finally caught a bit of our attention as we see the geography of the world changing before our eyes. Antarctica is melting, water is rising, storms are brewing. We need look only to the breached levees in New Orleans to know the fear and misery that water can bring.
No wonder you’re happy it’s sunny.
But I want you to stop and think for a minute how different your lives would be if you depended on rain to survive each day, if instead of this beautiful building, this school were built with corrugated metal roofs slanted to funnel water into buckets just so you could drink, cook, and bathe. Rain would be a welcome event.
I had the occasion in September of 2004 to visit communities that depended on rainwater to live. In the villages of Ethiopia, families prayed for rain so that the brooks would fill and the young girls who walked to collect the water in heavy clay jugs would not have to go so far. Sadly, there has been a drought in much of Eastern Africa which has left people praying for what we have here in New England in abundance.
It was the summer of 1985 when I first heard about drought in Ethiopia. An extraordinary international fundraising effort had occurred that July in the form of a concert called Live Aid. Many of you may remember. And while at the age of twelve, I appreciated that proceeds from “We Are the World” would go to helping desperate people, I think in all honesty I just really liked the song. A month later, I received a scholarship to join Applewild’s seventh grade class, and thoughts of Ethiopia faded from my mind. Little did I know that a skill and passion I would develop right here would land me in Addas Ababa nineteen years later.
It was Mrs. Reheiser who first required that I keep a journal. And I have kept one ever since. In one way or another, writing has defined my life – it brought me to Hollywood, it’s enabled me to teach, it has kept me connected to old friends, it has allowed me to express ideas for change. So, when I was invited to keep a web journal for a women’s delegation heading to Africa, I readily agreed.
Six months later I arrived in Addas Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, to see a poverty I could never have imagined. Old furniture lined the streets, as peddlers sold old dresses, jeans, and mismatched shoes. One boy wore a t-shirt from Maine. And as the weeks passed and I heard about the money needed for programs related to HIV/AIDS, education, sanitation, I could not help noticing that none of these issues could be tackled without first resolving the all encompassing issue of water.
Dirty water spreads illness. Distant treks for water leave children, primarily the girls, with no time for school. Nothing will get better until this fundamental need is met.
When I returned to Los Angeles, I felt compelled to do something. And so I wrote, When Watute Wants Some Water, a story about a little girl named Watute who helps her village dig a well so that her family can have clean water and so that she can go to school. I asked some of my former students to draw some illustrations, thinking we could sell a few copies to raise some money to put toward an actual well, but more importantly to raise awareness. I truly had no idea what I’d started.
YouthInkwell was born as a writing center, my way of marrying my desire to teach and write with my desire to help others. I thought the center could offer kids the opportunity to discuss social issues while also building their analytical and creative writing talents. What I did not realize was just how powerful young people can be. Following in the footsteps of the Watute team, five young students decided they, too, would write stories to sell and raise money. Now when I say young, I mean it. Amelia Mayberry is only nine-years-old; the eldest of the five, Sidney, a seventh grader. Their collection of stories is titled How to Cook with a Pencil (cooking with a pencil is defined as using writing to make a difference). The book features tales of philanthropic pirates and wayward water goddesses. Collectively with the illustrators of Watute, these kids are striving to raise $120,000. We have come to call it YouthInkwell’s “Well Project.” Ten kids, two books, six wells, tens of thousands of lives made better. That’s how it started. Of course we have more than ten kids now. It’s more like a small army. And they have such heart…
With the help of some amazing supporters, YouthInkwell Publishing is now a separate entity, a nonprofit corporation designed to help students write and/illustrate their own books so that they can donate the money to causes they believe in. And it is my sincere hope that we can succeed beyond just raising money. I want to empower young authors to see that they can make a difference, empower young readers who see our books to say, “Hey, I can do that.” By building wells, we’re empowering young people a world away by providing them with a chance to avoid diseases, to stay safe, to learn to read and write, and to eventually join the kids in this very room in what will inevitably need to be a global effort to save our environment.
Sometimes I don’t like being an adult. So often, it seems, many adults just don’t get it. They have stock excuses for not stepping up to fix problems. They say things like “we have people suffering here in America, we can’t worry about anybody else” as if humanity is defined by geography. They waste resources and claim “it’s my choice” as if that choice isn’t stealing the future of our environment. They so often turn their backs to issues that seem too big.
Not too long ago I heard someone tell me a story about a starfish. You see, in the morning when the tide goes out, thousands of starfish are left on the shore to die. They bake in the sun. Well, one morning, an older man is out walking along the shore pondering his life when he sees something terrifically odd. There’s this little girl bending down and picking up the starfish. She winds up and lets one fly, and it plops into the water. And the man stops her and says, “What are you doing? Look around you. There are thousands of them. What difference will it make to throw one back into the ocean?” And the little girl looks him square in the eye and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
That’s what I love about kids. They have the heart to change the world one starfish at a time.
To all of the students here, make no mistake – you are young, but you are powerful. And I thank God for that, because this world needs leaders desperately. We need you to stand up for what’s right, not just what’s right for you, but what’s right for everyone. And as teachers and parents and believers in you, it is our job to help. In that spirit, I say to you now that my door is open to all of you. If you have an idea, a way to make a difference, write me at YouthInkwell. I will do whatever I can to help. Just don’t wait. Start now. Start changing lives, one person at a time.
I want to close by acknowledging that Applewild has given me many gifts. One of the greatest was a love of Robert Cormier novels, which led to my making the film adaptation of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. In the midst of a bitter fight between myself and the director, I had the occasion to have dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Cormier. There, as I pondered an assortment of vindictive responses to my being kicked off the set of my own movie, Mr. Cormier put his hand on mine and said in his gentle voice, “Jennifer, this is a happy problem.” Most screenwriters never sell a single script. He was right.
A happy problem. I love that, because it constantly reminds me of how lucky we are to have some of the problems that plague us. It reminds me to look on the bright side. Something I suspect you will all need to do. After all, I hear it’s going to rain on Thursday.
Seriously, we have a lot of problems to fix, but they are happy problems because we actually have the ability, the education, the resources to fix them – now we just need the will.
So, I hope you will all go home to the internet (youthinkwell.org) and buy copies of the books to give your friends. It might not seem like a big deal, but if every Applewild family bought one book, our community here alone could bring ten years of water to thousands of people… one well at a time.
I thank the Laverack family and the Alumni Council for giving me the chance to visit with you and for honoring me with this award. Twenty-one years ago, Applewild made an investment in my education, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities it has brought to me.”