Name: Maya Smith College: Wellesley College Year of Graduation: 2009 Major: Philosophy
Who knew preventing malaria would include planning board game days? As a Faith Acts Fellow for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Maya Smith is working to spread malaria awareness and in whatever way she can—including things as simple as hosting a board game day with a local university’s interfaith organization, where she then spoke about the disease and its effects on children. But as if tackling malaria isn’t enough, the Faith Acts Fellows are also trying to prove that different faiths can work together to do good in the world. Between the 30 fellows, who work in pairs all across the US, Canada, and the UK, six religions are represented: Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Maya, who is Jewish, works in Montreal with Nicholas Pang, who is Christian.
These goals sound lofty, but by focusing on acting locally, they become accomplishable. “It’s been a lot of small scale events,” says Maya. On the National Day Against Violence Against Women, she hosted “Building Baskets for Change”, a program where high school students made gift baskets for a women’s shelter. “I talked about how malaria disproportionately affects women who are pregnant and young children, trying to raise gender awareness. But there was also a hands-on aspect to the program. They cut up winter scarves and made trail-mix.” Starting in January, she aims to focus more on raising funds for the cause. “An international student from Mexico has been teaching people to make piñatas,” she says. “We want to put them in public and have people pay to take a whack at them.”
Maya’s desire to do a community service fellowship started in high school, when she hoped to take time off after graduation to participate in one of Canada’s national service programs. But bad luck meant she was off to school instead; her applications were all eliminated through lottery. Time in school intensified her passion for service, and made her certain she wanted a service fellowship after graduation. “I really wanted to commit myself to some sort of social action and social justice cause when I was still young and had the freedom to do it,” Maya says. Though she applied to a myriad of programs, Faith Acts Fellows stood out. “The interfaith aspect was my first draw to the program,” explains Mays. She’s had a passion for interfaith work ever since her trip to the concentration camps in Poland with March of the Living, an educational program about the Holocaust for Jewish teens. “It made me realize how fragile our relationships as humans are,” she says. At Wellesley College, she worked to build relationships between students of different faiths through representing Hillel, the Jewish student group, on Multi-Faith Council.
Maya’s journey as a Faith Acts Fellow started with a very literal journey; her seven-week training spanned three cities, each in a different continent: Chicago, London, and Bamako, the capital of Mali, a country in western Africa. Maya’s travels to Mali served as a powerful lesson in the effects of malaria, and what can be done to stop it. She met with members of Project Muso, a Malaria prevention program in Yirimadjo, a community on the outskirts of Bamako where 72% of the population lives beneath the poverty line. Health education is a key part of their program. “They employ and train women in the community to teach basic information about health and recognize when people are sick,” explains Maya. “They are there to tell people when they need to go the clinic. Health issues are so common there that people don’t go when they need to.” Once in Montreal, Maya found herself navigating social networks instead of her way around the globe. “At the beginning, it is just a lot of contacting people and making phone calls,” she says. “It’s arranging opportunities to speak at youth groups and encouraging them to participate in events.” She and Nicholas work from the offices of the Canadian Center for Humanism, which has been a helpful resource. “The director organized many of our initial meetings,” explains Maya. “In the networking arena, they were pretty much essential. It meant we didn’t have to start from scratch.”
Though she’s received law school acceptances for next year, Maya isn’t sure of her plans after the fellowship. “I’m very much on the fence about law school,” she says. “From what I know about law, it fascinates me. But the work I’m doing now is so valuable. After umpteen years of school and writing papers, it’s great to spend time talking to people, hearing stories about connections they have with malaria.” And until those law school deposit deadlines draw near, Maya is fine with uncertainty. “I think there’s just so much you have yet to discover, you never know what adventures lie next,” she says. What she does know is that her experiences from the Faith Acts Fellowship are something she will continue to cherish. “It’s the relationships I’ve had with the other fellows, constantly engaging with people who are different but have the shared value of celebrating that difference,” she says. “It’s been a privilege to experience working together.” Sources: Maya Smith, Faith Acts Fellow http://www.projectmuso.org/ http://www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/fellows/ Photo Credit: Danny Richmond