After listening to Amina Capaldi’s remembrances in Togo, Hannah Koenig knew exactly what she would do for her mitzvah project leading up to her Bat Mitzvah.
Usually when you get a haircut, you might endure some awkward chitchat as you nervously entrust your tresses to the scissors in the hairdresser’s hand.
But for Hannah Koenig, her relationship with her stylist extended way beyond talking about what movies she’s seen recently or how school is.
Amina Capaldi works at Blume Salon in Montgomeryville. She is from Togo, a country in West Africa bordering Ghana. Koenig began talking with her about her hometown soon after she started seeing Capaldi for her haircuts about four years ago.
Koenig learned about how little clean drinking water there is available for those living in Togo and how, as a result, many people get stomach parasites and waterborne illnesses — including Capaldi herself, years ago.
After listening to Capaldi’s remembrances, Koenig became motivated to do something more. The answer to what form that involvement would take came in the form of the organization
Capaldi founded and has been working to expand, Wish Them Well, which builds wells in Togo to provide access to clean drinking water.
Suddenly, Koenig knew exactly what she would do for her mitzvah project leading up to her Bat Mitzvah, which she celebrated March 12 at Tiferet Bet Israel.
“Since I got to hear the stories firsthand,” said the Wissahickon Middle School seventh-grader, “I wanted to help. Also, in science, we were learning about the effects of unclean water, and it didn’t make sense that people would have to suffer because no one else was helping. So I wanted to help.”
Last year, while she was in sixth grade, Koenig started thinking of ways she could raise money for Wish Them Well.
She worked with her family as well as with Hilary Yohlin Waller, director of congregational programming and youth activities at TBI, to brainstorm ideas.
“She was excited to talk about the cause and excited to tell me about their friend, Amina,” recalled Waller. “We brainstormed to think of ways of how to bring Hannah’s project to the congregation.”
The Hebrew school had a Color Wars competition throughout the school year, which Koenig used as an opportunity to start cooking up batches of cookies for a bake sale as a kickoff fundraiser for Wish Them Well. She was able to include the whole congregation as part of Yad B’Yad, the synagogue’s community service program.
Koenig sold cookies every Tuesday before Hebrew school classes started and held a 12-hour bake sale on Election Day. In the end, she made 1,600 cookies that she sold for $1 for a bag of two cookies. Combining her bake sales, receiving donations and setting up a donation jar in her class at school, she made $1,200.
The cost to build a well and cover the resources is $1,300, Koenig said, so she used some of the gift money she received for her Bat Mitzvah to make up for the rest. Capaldi’s cousin sent pictures of the groundbreaking last week for the first well Koenig funded. There was even a sign with Koenig’s name on it at the site.
“It’s really crazy because I never thought it would be this big or we would raise enough for a well,” Koenig reflected excitedly.
She said she is planning on using her Bat Mitzvah money to fund a second well, too.
“She didn’t just choose to support the easiest organization or the one that has the most programming,” Waller explained, adding that an ongoing project by a student with the commitment to see it through is rare.
“I’m most struck in this situation by just her positive attitude,” Waller said. “She set out to do something and she’s doing it, and taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.”
And not all of it was easy. Koenig and Capaldi spoke at her middle school and presented the organization and Koenig’s fundraising efforts — no mean feat for a seventh-grader.
Talking about Wish Them Well with her classmates was a way for Koenig to teach them a lesson and talk about something they might not know otherwise.
“Not everyone’s as fortunate as us,” she said, “and we need to open up our eyes to what’s really happening in the world and help other people.”
The biggest challenge for now, Lisa Koenig, Hannah’s mother, said, is that Capaldi does not have a 501(c)(3), which is needed for a nonprofit organization. Therefore, it’s been hard to fundraise, as any donations have to be written out directly to Capaldi, Lisa explained.
Getting the form and accreditation will allow Capaldi to create a website and other necessary tools for the grassroots organization to continue to get off its feet and Lisa has been looking for someone to help.
“It’s such an amazing cause that [Capaldi] started,” Lisa said. “She came to this country 22 years ago, and now she’s at the point where she can give back. Access to clean water is something we take for granted here.”
It goes without saying that she’s proud of her daughter’s accomplishments and what she did for Wish Them Well.
“I really was so proud of her because she came home after that science unit and she had spoken to Amina before and she said, ‘I want to help Amina,’ ” Lisa recalled. “It’s been a special experience for both [of them]. Watching her do this — it’s really been an incredible experience for me. Having her present that check to Amina and seeing Amina’s face, it really was amazing.”
Capaldi was at the Bat Mitzvah, where Hannah spoke about Wish Them Well and about Capaldi. But one of the biggest lessons Hannah learned from this process was to be grateful.
“Every day, I complain about going to school and what to wear in the morning and tests,” she said. “I’m lucky to have those luxuries because some people in Togo can’t even go to school
because they can’t afford a pencil. It’s 25 cents to get into school and you have to have a pencil; some kids get sent home because they can’t afford it.”
She plans to continue to raise money for Wish Them Well and providing clean water — and one day she “definitely wants to go to Togo” and see the fruits of her labor in person.
“It felt really good,” she said of her project and the money she raised, “because it’s going help generations to come.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 215-832-0740