Most high school freshman spend their time trying to navigate new school experiences, but Belmont freshman Maren Johnson dedicated hers to helping others overseas.
As a freshman in high school, she joined the Global Soap Project and has been working with it ever since.
The Global Soap Project collects partially-used and discarded bars of soap from hotels and sends them to be reprocessed in Atlanta, where the soap is made into new bars. Those bars are then sent overseas to people who don’t have access to personal hygiene products like soap.
“I’m from South Dakota, so I brought it (the project) up to the Midwest and started working with hotels in North Dakota, South Dakota, a few in western Minnesota, a couple in Iowa and then some in Canada. Throughout high school, I built my network up to about 130 hotels,” Johnson said.
Since she first became involved with the Global Soap Project, Johnson has helped collect 25,000 pounds of soap. She was able to send that soap to Atlanta for reprocessing with a recycling grant from South Dakota, which helped cover shipping costs.
“That’s mainly what I’ve done, but then the project, when they deliver the bars of soap, they teach about hygiene and the importance of that bar of soap,” Johnson said. “The kids are the main target so they live longer and healthier lives.”
In order to expand the project, which at first only partnered with six hotels, to one that partnered with over 100, Johnson had to drive for hours to get where she needed to be.
She would travel to Minneapolis, Minn., a four hour drive from her house, to help Garth Peterson, another person involved with the Global Soap Project, pack up the soap and ship it from there, she said.
“Then I went off on my own after that, so I had to drive all over the state to collect the soap, which takes up a lot of time,” Johnson said.
But her years of hard work and planning haven’t gone unnoticed. She has earned the N.O.W. Youth Leadership Award, which is named after Children’s Environmental Health Network founder Nsedu Obot Witherspoon.
However, Johnson wasn’t the one who initially found out that she was the award recipient. It was her mother who answered the call, but almost missed it because she did not recognize the number.
“I had just woken up, and she got off the phone and told me,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t believe it because it’s like one person in the country that won this award.”
Garth Peterson, a member of the Global Soap Project’s board, nominated her.
“I’ve been recognized with other awards throughout the state and national level, but nothing to this degree. It was an amazing thing,” Johnson said. “My dad started crying when he told other people about it. I just still can’t believe it’s happening.”
Johnson will fly to Washington, D.C. Oct. 17 for the award presentation.
“I’m really excited. I feel like it will give me a lot more opportunity to meet people and make a lot of connections, which will be incredible,” she said.
Since moving to Nashville to attend Belmont, Johnson has taken up a role with fundraising the Global Soap Project.
“A young girl has taken over what I was doing at home, so I’m kind of changing paths. I’m the student ambassador for the project as well,” she said.
Johnson’s favorite part of the project is being able to see the reactions of the children receiving the soap in a video from when her sister traveled to Africa two years ago.
She had planned to take a trip to Africa over the summer to personally deliver the soap, but the trip was cancelled due to insufficient fundraising.
And while Johnson has been unable to see the responses from the children she is helping firsthand, she knows that her efforts are being appreciated.
“It’s just incredible to see how happy the children are and just knowing they’re going to live longer because you’re collecting soap here,” Johnson said. “We’re helping America by reducing waste, and we’re saving lives of thousands of people.”