Since he was 15, Ben Hirschfeld has been spreading light in Kenya. He founded an organization called Lit! Solar to replace dangerous kerosene lamps, which many poor families rely on in their homes, with safe solar lanterns.
These new lanterns enable students who don’t have electricity to study after dark and allow other family members to have productive evening hours too, perhaps pursuing home businesses — and to save money on expensive kerosene. Since long exposure to kerosene can cause asthma, pneumonia and lung cancer, the solar lanterns are also a boost to family health.
Now 19, Hirschfeld of Hastings-on-Hudson was just awarded a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award by the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation. The award, given to 10 teens around the country each year, carries a $36,000 prize, and Hirshfeld says that he’ll be using it to purchase more lanterns and allow more Kenyans to benefit from their radiance.
Hirschfeld, who is entering his sophomore year at Columbia University, is the only New Yorker among the 10 teens recognized for outstanding volunteer efforts in the areas of poverty, autism and teen empowerment. While the award is in its seventh year — to date, $1.5 million has been distributed to 40 teens — this is the first year that awards have been granted to changemakers outside California.
“It was an amazing experience to see what a different the lanterns had made,” he says, recalling a 2011 trip to Kenya. “It was also humbling, with so many people we had yet to reach. The enormity of the situation really hit me.” He remembers talking to a woman whose solar lantern had been a huge boon to her sewing business. In addition, her young children were no longer catching pneumonia and passing it back and forth. He learned that being around the kerosene was like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
“One of the happiest moments in my life was to hear how the lanterns — a $7 piece of technology — made such a difference,” he says.
Lit! Solar has reached 10,000 people. As Hirschfeld explains, the lanterns absorb the sun’s energy through their solar panels, store it in a battery and release it at night as bright LED light.
Hirschfeld, whose family belongs to Woodlands Community Temple, a Reform congregation in Greenburgh, was inspired to begin this project one Shavuot during an all-night study session. Speaking with a neighbor who runs a literacy organization in Africa, he learned about the problems of those who don’t have enough light.
“How lucky we were to be able to stay up all night studying,” he says. “Imagine not having light as the sun goes down. Over there, they don’t have that option, and when they do they are paying for it dearly.”
What sets his organization apart from others that supply solar lanterns in Africa is its self-sustaining revolving-fund financial model. People who are given lanterns then give back some of the money they save from not buying kerosene, enabling others to have solar lanterns too.
Hirschfeld says that Maimonides’ eight levels of charity was an inspiration, reminding him that the highest form of giving is to enable someone to become self-sufficient.
At Columbia, Hirschfeld has taken a course in political economy and African development. For now, he’s planning to go into international development work.
As for advice to other young people with dreams of making a difference alleviating problems in the world, he advises, “You have to find something you are passionate about. Find others who are passionate about the same things. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel at first, but find good partners. That will help you magnify whatever contribution you can make.”
Nominations are now open for next year at DillerTeenAwards.org.