Imagine living in Haiti or Kenya on two or less dollars a day. You need to spread that money thinly enough to pay for food and shelter for your spouse and children. What priority would you give to buying soap? The answer is that soap is a luxury in many poorer nations, with many children never seeing any. Despite the fact that soap can reduce mortality rates by 19% (when birth attendants wash their hands), and that hand washing can reduce diarrhea morbidity by 44%, soap simply hasn’t been available to the poor until recently.
Vicki Gordon worked in the hotel industry for 36 years. She met Derreck Kayongo, a former refugee from Uganda, who worked at CARE. Kayongo asked Gordon what happened to all of the slightly used bars of soap that are left behind by hotel guests. The answer was that they ended up in the nearest landfill. Kayongo, who knew well that “soap was a luxury,” had a vision to collect those used bars and get them to refugees. The result of these efforts coalesced in the Global Soap Project. And Gordon, who was a major advocate in the beginning, joined the board. (Gordon, like everyone associated with the Global Soap Project, is a volunteer.)
The Museum of Design Atlanta hosted a talk by Gordon as a part of their Thursday night series, Drink In Design on August 11, 2011. Because the current exhibit is WaterDream: The Art of Bathroom Design, the staff at MODA thought it would be highly appropriate to have Gordon speak about soap.
While most Americans are not able to afford the luxurious bathrooms featured in WaterDream, we all do have bathrooms and take clean, running water for granted. This clearly separates us from a third world nation filled with refugees who would view even a typical American bathroom as extravagant. Surrounded by lavishly large tubs and faucets that provide the bather with a cascading waterfall, Gordon discussed the needs and benefits of a simple bar of soap. She focused on the importance of good hygiene and its ability to save lives by preventing pneumonia and other diseases caused by bacteria. One of the ways to get involved and support the 501(c)(3) Global Soap Project, she mentioned, was through donations or volunteering through Hands On Atlanta.
To date, the GSP has recycled and distributed over 200 tons of used soap which has been collected from hotels and other members of the hospitality industry. The GSP recycles the little bars into bigger bars before giving them to families, and partners with organizations like MedShare, also headquartered in Atlanta, to ship the bars of soap to their final destinations.
“A larger percentage of people don’t have bathrooms than do worldwide,” said Gordon. The irony of that statement in the beautifully designed MODA facility was clear, yet it is precisely members of museums who support the humanities that are in the best position to help.
Gordon’s talk was clear and pointed, and full of interesting stories. She talked about how they do not wrap the bars of soap for multiple reasons, including the waste produced by the wrappers and how free, nicely wrapped bars can threaten the businesses of local soap makers. Additionally, they learned to make irregular looking bars of soap to prevent sale on the black market. She successfully humanized a project that collects soap from approximately 300 hotels.
An unexpected but moving moment happened at the end of the talk, when Rony Delgarde stood up to speak. Delgarde is from Haiti and currently works for CARE while also volunteering in the warehouse for the Global Soap Project. Delgarde and Gordon had never met before, but Delgarde praised the work they are doing and discussed his first-hand knowledge of the value of soap to people in his home country, many of whom have remained homeless since the massive earthquake of 2010. He pointed to a picture of himself at the GSP warehouse to Gordon that appears in the GSP pamphlet.
MODA is a stunning facility that is a resource for the students of SCAD and other schools with design and architecture programs. But on this night, it was home to a project that offers preventive medicine in the form of soap to a far-reaching global community, for whom many of the basics of our lives are luxuries.